Buzzed Books #34 by C.T. McMillan
Andrzej Bursa’s Killing Auntie
The college years can be confusing, especially when you are trying to work out new boundaries with your family, create your adult identity, and, you know, commit murder.
Killing Auntie, by Andrzej Bursa, is about Jurek, a university student who lives with Auntie in a nondescript city in Poland. From a first person perspective we learn his life is rather uneventful with regular lectures, daily routines at home, and visits from loathsome relatives. One day, Jurek decides to bash Auntie’s brains in with a hammer and discovers that disposing of her corpse is rather difficult.
Killing Auntie existentially takes after Dostoevsky, Camus, and Monty Python. While Jurek is trying to get rid of the body, he ponders the motivation behind his deed, yet cannot bring himself to really care. The reason for the killing is never really explained outright. What he tells the reader is contemptuous of those human beings who share his world, using their flaws as simple descriptors like his other aunt’s myopia, his teacher’s withered frame, and his grandmother’s near perpetual hunger. The purpose of the murder is as elusive as his own purpose for being alive.
In the beginning we learn of Jurek’s feelings toward the routine mundaneness of his life. He is dissatisfied about going to school and the uneventful predictability of living with Auntie. Thus, the swing of the hammer.
Jurek is fully conscious that he is a murderer, at one point shouting that fact in the streets in a drunken stupor, and even confessing to a local priest. He thinks nothing of the moral or ethical consequences, though. Jurek examines his case philosophically, but he is not an adept philosopher, as we find out when his girlfriend comes over to visit. When she attempts to flee, he tells her,
I do not intend to justify my crime with the commonness of crime in our times. The fact that we all, day after day, gouge eyes, break arms and hearts, that we all hide corpses in our homes, does not excuse me from rightful punishment… I do not mean to defend myself. If only because I do not feel guilty.
This explanation did not persuade her to stay.
Is this homicidal nihilism or narcissism, or ennui? Jurek is dispossessed from the world, thinking nothing of school, other people, friends, or even his girlfriend. Nothing matters apart from basic needs as he runs out of food and complains that the apartment is cold. The only time he puts real thought into anything is how to mail the corpse after butchering it, referring to it as if it were an object of inconvenience.
The book features grotesque slapstick. The first gag is Jurek trying to flush severed fingers down the toilet, but they kept returning to the surface. When he resorts to burning the corpse in the stove, he gets bored, reads a book, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the house full of smoke. When cremation failed, Jurek decides to mail the corpse elsewhere. This offers him another opportunity to see his grim handiwork:
The sheet covering the corpse was pulled half way off… On the right side I noticed a shallow but wide wound as if a bite had been taken out of it… I bent over the corpse again and put my hand under the sheet. When I took it out, it was holding Granny’s false teeth.
The humor provides interesting breaks between Jurek attempting to get rid of the body.
Killing Auntie has a lot to say on the developing mind of a youth exploring what life means on his way to adulthood. It was a compellingly outrageous read. Jurek’s detached, nonchalant voice felt authentic, and fit well within the satirical aesthetic that is simultaneously a comedy and a philosophical examination.
This wicked 110-page novel was written in 1956, one year before Bursa died. Kudos to New Vessel Press for bringing this lost Polish classic to the attention of English readers in its Rebel Lit series.