Review published on August 7, 2018.
These two novels are important milestones in post-war Eastern European literature, but they are also excellent crime stories. They are a direct challenge to authority and to the toughness of life at the time, but they have some of the key noir traits. You can clearly see the influence of Western novels, but they have their own edgy feel and interpretation. If you want something different, then look no further.
Killing Auntie by Andrezej Bursa
Killing Auntie is a really witty novel. Bursa uses the humour as a way of making the dark nature of the material accessible. It’s easy to see why it became a favourite of the beats and the younger generation, particularly those living under an oppressive regime and seeking something that reflected their non-conformity. If you read it as allegory, it’s an attack on religion and communism in Poland. “A revolution against the banality of everyday life,” Gezeta Krakowska. When Crime and Punishment was published it was attacked for its nihilism, I can imagine people saying the same about this novel, which takes its inspiration from the great Russian novel. Bursa subverts the original murder story by removing the mitigating factors that are apparent in Dostoyevsky’s tale (the victim is a beloved aunt as opposed to a money lender, for example). Nonetheless, this is a very moral novel, there is a hint of redemption in the tale of a motiveless murder.
“Today for the first time I realised I had no purpose. I went out without a reason. These purposeless lonely walks were murderous.”
The young narrator of the novel means that literally, for no reason we can discern easily, he has become a murderer. He has bludgeoned his aunt with a hammer. The details soon emerge in the confessional. The priests asks why he committed the murder; was it for money? No, because his aunt looked after him, fed him, gave his a home. Was it anger? No, they had no dispute. Was the aunt a bad woman? No, she also looked after her own aged mother and a disabled sister too. The young man states that he “sought peace in crime”. The priest asks him to repent, but he can’t. Then, growing ever more distraught and desperate due to the encounter, the priest is finally joyful that the young man agrees to come back, to talk some more and to consider the idea of repentance – it’s his victory. This exchange is surreal, funny and clever. It’s the first of many encounters. What do you do with the body after the event (think Ian McEwan’s The Innocents)? What happens when you meet a girl you fall in love with? Beautifully structured and easily read this is a gem.
Bursa died tragically young, a heart attack at 25, so this is his only novel and it’s a masterpiece; ahead of its time and extraordinarily accomplished for a debut. A mix of deadpan humour, inventiveness and serious intent. New Vessel Press have published Killing Auntie in its Rebel Lit series because if its “spirit of rebellion and challenge”. Written in the 1950s, it’s a daring novel that cocks a snook at the Communist regime and post-war Polish society. It’s an attack on the mundane and the ordinary in life. More importantly, it’s a deliciously dark and funny read. Bursa has a pithy style that conveys so much in a few words.
Originally published in 1969, posthumously, this is a superb modern translation by Wiesiek Powaga.
Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko
“‘I converted to Catholicism because the priests promised to help me get a Canadian visa,’ the hunchback explained.”
I was expecting this novel to be a more complicated read than it was, I was expecting a more abstract structure (it has been described as an ‘absurdist tableau’). In fact, it’s very readable and an enjoyable experience (if you love the dark side). Not so strange, when you consider much of the novel comes from real-life experiences – the short and unhappy life of Marek Hlasko, born in 1934, dead at 25.
Essentially, the story is about two conmen who attempt to defraud a wealthy America woman. They have done this before and last time it went very badly. At every turn the characters reflect the worst of humanity, cynical and morally weary (worn down by war, poverty and immune to cruelty). The Killing the Second Dog of the title is a scam to reel in the victim.
The novel opens with a journey. Our two conmen, Robert and Jacob, make the trip from Haifa to Tel Aviv; it takes two hours. There’s another passenger in the cab with them, he becomes unwell, by the time they reach their destination, he has died. They think he was Romanian, he didn’t speak Hebrew, it really sets the tone of the novel. They go to their usual hotel, the clerk is in on the scam, he finds them the dog. Now they need a backer, Azderbal is anxious after the last time, but they need money for 2/3 weeks and they can make maybe make 6/800 pounds from the victim. Robert tells Jacob it’s like Shakespeare: live it, don’t act it, believe in yourself and the mark will believe too. They set about finding the victim for their scam, of course it doesn’t go the way they plan.
This exchange gives you an idea of the cynicism of the novel:
“‘Hey blondie,’ the Hunchback called after me, ‘the priests promised to give me some cash at the end of the week. Find me a broad, okay?’
‘That’ll cost you thirty or forty pounds,’ I told him.
‘Why? Everybody pays twenty.’
‘Yeah not everybody is a hunchback.’”
Many events in the novel are drawn from memory and presented as fiction, which can be harrowing, as with the description of rape in war, also Hlasko’s father died at the hands of the Germans. In an excellent introduction to the novel, Leslie Chamberlain tells us Hlasko first became a ‘people’s reporter’ for Tribuna Ludu. When he began writing novels he was initially lionised then ostracised by the regime. Kicked out while touring in Paris in the 1960s, he then spent most of his time poor and travelling. When he got to Israel he was expecting to settle down but didn’t feel welcomed and had to work as a manual labourer for poor wages. Like a lot of exiles, he was in pain. He had a contempt both for religion and political ideology. Hlasko killed himself at the age of 35 in a hotel in Weisbaden. In a mixture of farce and tragedy, the death of a friend after a drunken fall, due to a blood clot made worse by Hlasko falling on top of him, was the final straw for the writer.
“It would have been a relief to tell her everything….about the Jewish family hiding next door….murdered by the Germans….their bodies were lying on the ground the German stops of men walking by and ordered them to piss on the corpses a German called me over and I pissed to shaking with fear….”
Brutal moments like that stop you short, it’s a desperate view of humanity but a compassionate one too, there is room for a little hope at the end. Sharp dialogue, pithy storytelling and an incisive intelligence make this a breath taking experience. Beautifully translated by writer and critic, Tomasz Mirkowicz.
I feel almost guilty admitting how much fun I had reading these two very dark novels, but I am so glad I did. The New Vessel Press is a relatively new press that specialises in foreign literature translated into English. I first read one of their novels earlier this year, another intelligent thriller but this time from France. You can find my review review of it here.
Paul Burke 5* and 5*
Killing Auntie by Andrezej Bursa
New Vessel Press 9781939931214 pbk Aug 2015
Killing the Second Dog by Marek Hlasko
New Vessel Press 9781939931115 pbk Mar 2014