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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Killing Auntie

Andrzej Bursa

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To purchase Killing Auntie

Title: Killing Auntie
Author: Andrzej Bursa
Genre: Novel
Written: (1981) (Eng. 2009)
Length: 107 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Killing Auntie - US
Killing Auntie & other work - UK
Killing Auntie - Canada
Killing Auntie - India
  • Polish title: Zabicie ciotki
  • Written in 1956, Zabicie ciotki was first published posthumously (1981)
  • The 2009 UK edition (CB editions), Killing Auntie & other work also includes ... other work
  • Translated by Wiesiek Powaga
  • Zabicie ciotki has been filmed twice: as a full-length feature (1984, directed by Grzegorz Królikiewicz) and as a short (2013, directed by Mateusz Glowacki)

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Our Assessment:

B : lively, twisted little work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 4/12/2009 Boyd Tonkin
Publishers Weekly . 13/7/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Some will think of Dostoyevsky when it comes to the snuffed-out relative in the novella; read to the end, and you hear something like Joe Orton's wicked cackle too." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "While an allegorical framework would certainly help to explain some of the book's surrealistic elements -- and particularly its turn toward dream logic in the final chapters -- contemporary readers will also find plenty to enjoy (one sequence of unwitting cannibalism is particularly memorable) in the story itself." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Killing Auntie, written in mid-1950s Poland but only published posthumously many years later, seems an unlikely work to emerge from the then-still-Communist country -- but anomie among the young (the book's dedication reads: "To all who once stood terrified before the dead perspective of their youth") and existential-theoretical acts of murder apparently flourish across a wide ideological spectrum (though one suspects that the Central European situations across the ages have been especially fertile ground ...).
       Killing Auntie is narrated by Jurek, an orphaned twenty-one-year-old university student (or, as he puts it: "a twenty-one-year-old loafer") who lives with his aunt. "I needed a purpose", Jurek says early on, but he's an aimless, clueless, disaffected kid. An impulsive one, too, its seems -- and so, one morning, after Auntie asks him to hammer a nail in the wall he gives her two good whacks with it as well. The result is unsurprising: "There was no doubt Auntie was a corpse".
       No doubt, too, the murder is very much a symbolic one (how much so only eventually becomes clear) -- but that still leaves a corpse to dispose of. Which turns out to be a much bigger problem than Jurek had anticipated (not that he had really thought this through, of course).
       Jurek's act barely rises to the Dostoeveskyan; it's simply a motiveless whim. Or rather the motive is simple action of some sort, a flailing for purpose. In part, it is a call for attention: Jurek relates confessing to it in church before he even gets around to describing the murder, and he drunkenly confesses in front of the police, believing, even as they hold him fast:

     "I'm free through murder !" I cried out. "Freeeeee ! ...."
       Of course, he's anything but -- indeed, he finds himself jailed after that particular outburst, and even aside from that the millstone of the corpse that will not go away rather limits his freedom too. But, as he also comes to realize, it also gives him that sought-after sense of purpose:
I realized with absolute clarity that the only real thing was the corpse, at once a millstone around my neck and my lifeline.
       Jurek does tread somewhat cautiously, but he also draws an awful lot of attention to himself and to the corpse. But, for various reasons, no one seems able to make the necessary connection and figure out what he is storing in the bathtub (and trying to burn in the oven, and mailing by parcel post ...).
       Much of the fun of the novel is found in the grotesque premise of Jurek trying to dispose of the body (and the pieces of the body). From his efforts at dismemberment to his efforts at disposal -- which includes trying to mail away some of the pieces -- his deadpan account is gruesomely hilarious, as repeatedly he has to acknowledge:
Once again it crossed my mind that the annihilation of the corpse was harder than might generally be believed, that the struggle was tough and the adversary brave.
       Jurek meets a girl, too -- "I allowed Teresa to take over all my thoughts and imagination" -- which is very satisfying, but also a complication.
       Jurek's endeavors are marked by typical shortsighted youthful exuberance. He lets himself get carried away -- only to be brought back down to earth by the reality of that corpse that he's keeping in the bathtub. There's little follow-through -- hence he's still stuck with most of the corpse for way too long a time. In many respects, his tale is one of a typical youth -- except, you know, that he killed someone .....
       The Polish backdrop of the times -- just around the vaguely hopeful time before the events of 1956 in Hungary and Poland -- allows a bit more to be read into the story too, with Jurek's interactions with others -- the authorities (religious and political), neighbors, fellow students -- a not so subtle commentary on society at large.
       Contemporary readers might find Jurek's emotional distance from the act, the murder of the only close family member he has left, and a woman who loves him deeply, disturbing. In fact, 'Auntie' is a literally disembodied figure: for Jurek, the corpse has nothing to do with her, and there is essentially nothing of Auntie in it. He treats the corpse figuratively -- which can sometimes be hard to see as he works away at making it more easily disposable.
       Ultimately, too, Killing Auntie turns out to be a slightly different tale than Bursa had us believe most of the way, making the novel as a whole entirely more palatable, and justifying why there's little of the morality-tale to it.
       Killing Auntie is an unsettling tale of disaffected youth, and the mix of black, dry humor and blasé attitude towards the heinous crime can be a bit hard to swallow, but there's considerable charm to Bursa's clever variation on the story of youth seeking purpose too. A nicely off-beat little novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 August 2015

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Killing Auntie: Reviews: Killing Auntie - the films: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish author Andrzej Bursa lived 1932 to 1957.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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