The strange flight of the painted bird

After 50 years ‘The Painted Bird’ remains among the most illuminating of Holocaust imaginings.

Jerzy Kosinski in 1973 (photo credit: ROB MIEREMET / WIKIMEDIA)
Jerzy Kosinski in 1973
(photo credit: ROB MIEREMET / WIKIMEDIA)
WHEN IT was first published, 50 years ago this autumn, it was hailed as a masterpiece of Holocaust literature.
Elie Wiesel declared it “one of the best… Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity.”
For Richard Kluger it was “literally staggering… one of the most powerful books I have ever read.” Jonathan Yardley gushed, “Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosinski’s ‘The Painted Bird.’ A magnificent work of art…” The novel would go on to sell over three million copies. It garnered prizes, was translated into more than 30 languages, and a half-century later remains in print and in audio and e-book formats. A film version of the novel is reportedly in the works by Czech director Vaclav Marhoul.
Yet in “A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction,” literary critic Ruth Franklin noted in 2011 that “The Painted Bird,” once a mainstay of high school and college syllabi, has disappeared almost entirely from the Holocaust canon, tainted by the stigma of fraud. Most recent works of criticism about Holocaust literature do not mention it at all.
The very title of the book suggests a peculiar prescience. In the novel, a woodsman and bird hunter periodically paints his captured birds in “stinking paints… in rainbow hues,” then releases them to join their flock in the wild. But the flock invariably attacks the birds until they fall dead from the sky. Toward the end of the novel, the child narrator likens himself to such a creature. In at least one interview, Kosinski also referred to himself as just such a bird. The same description applies to the strange path of his novel.
The spectacular rise and fall of “The Painted Bird” makes for an extraordinary tale based on numerous fundamental but complex questions. Who was Jerzy Kosinski? Why was he such a notorious dissembler? Did he actually write the book? Was it autobiographical or purely imaginary? Did the controversies over his literary career bring about his 1991 suicide? And since the book mentions Nazis and Jews only in passing, should “The Painted Bird” in fact be considered Holocaust literature? Let me assert one view without ambiguity: “The Painted Bird,” which for the first time in decades I’ve now reread several times, is an astounding work. It is artistically shaped and executed. It is at once tender and heartfelt and almost nauseatingly horrific.
(In a 1982 lecture, Kosinski said, “I felt the novel was not brutal enough.”) I’ve read more Holocaust fiction than I care to count, but I can say that, however unappealing and even maddening its author may appear, “The Painted Bird” is a masterpiece of, yes, Holocaust literature.
The book is narrated by a nameless child who by appearance is thought to be a Gypsy or a Jew but who never identifies himself as either. (Several times the child recalls his family taking him to church services.) Set in Eastern Europe during World War II, the boy is placed by his parents for his safety (the father was a prewar anti-Nazi activist) into the care of a peasant woman in a remote village. The peasant woman soon dies, however, and the boy thereafter is forced to wander from village to village.
In one nightmarish episode after another, the narrator either experiences or witnesses a cascade of horrors: enslavement, whippings, torture, sexual abuse, bestiality, incest, necrophilia, dismemberment, incineration, eyeball squashing, death by ravenous rats, mass murder. At one point the boy almost drowns in a cesspool; at another he nearly dies under the ice of a frozen river. An incident in a church leaves him without the ability to speak.
Virtually everyone he encounters is ruled by the most primitive superstition and animalistic passion. The boy is driven to the brink of madness. He is temporarily rescued by the victorious Red Army, only to be placed in a madhouse of an orphanage and led to a postwar life to which he cannot adjust.
The actual war in “The Painted Bird,” however, remains far in the background.
Only occasionally do we get glimpses of German soldiers or references to partisan fighters. Only in one chapter does the child narrator report: “Then a new kind of train appeared on the line. Living people were jammed in locked cattle cars. Some of the men who worked at the station brought news to the village.
These trains carried Jews and Gypsies, who had been captured and sentenced to death.
In each car there were two hundred of them, stacked like cornstalks, arms raised to take up less space.”
“The Painted Bird” was first published in the US and was clearly labeled fiction. Yet because of the novel’s nameless first-person narrator and the breathtaking vividness of his tale, many readers and reviewers either suspected or assumed that the book was autobiographical. They were assisted in this view in no small measure by Kosinski himself. According to many accounts the author for years had stunned guests at cocktail parties with stories of his bizarre and horrific experiences as a child scrabbling to survive on his own during the war.
Later, in countless interviews and articles – the book made Kosinski a media star – the writer repeatedly offered up coy and convoluted propositions concerning the inevitable interweavings of fiction and autobiography.
It would be years before journalists and researchers determined that Kosinski was a chronic liar. He had indeed been born in Lodz, Poland, in 1933, but he spent the war years not as an abandoned child but with his family. Moreover, he was not born as Jerzy Kosinski but as Josef Lewinkopf, the son of Moses and Elizabeth Lewinkopf. (Kosinski was the name Jerzy’s father chose for their forged identity papers.) THIS MEANS t hat i n a n i nterview w ith Elie Wiesel at the time of the novel’s debut, Kosinski told two significant lies: he asserted that his book was based on fact, and he denied he was Jewish. When Wiesel later again questioned Kosinski about his origins, Kosinski once more denied he was Jewish.
But these issues were only two of the many controversies surrounding Kosinski.
Although acclaimed by some as the greatest Polish-born novelist writing in English since Joseph Conrad, a lengthy front-page article in The Village Voice in 1982 reported that numerous editors and ghostwriters hired by Kosinski had largely written “The Painted Bird” – and his other novels as well.
Polish journalists and officials meanwhile insisted that “The Painted Bird” had been sponsored by the CIA in an attempt to damage Poland. (It didn’t help that before “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski had published under the name Joseph Novak two nonfiction works attacking Communism.) Polish officials also accused the author of being a Zionist propagandist. Then in 2001, a Lublin University scholar declared that large chunks of “The Painted Bird” had been plagiarized from a book by Polish sociologist Henryk Biegeleisen. Next it was claimed that a 1971 Kosinski bestseller, “Being There,” which was subsequently an award-winning movie scripted by Kosinski, was plagiarized from a 1932 Polish novel by Tadeusz Dołęga- Mostowicz. These charges have not stuck, but they did taint his reputation.
Then we have the not insignificant matters of Kosinski’s public career and private life, both of which inspired much speculation, controversy and, it must be assumed, envy.
After completing university, Kosinski left Poland for the US in 1957, and studied at Columbia University. He was granted fellowships from the Guggenheim and Ford Foundations and lectured at Yale, Princeton and Wesleyan Universities.
He became a best-selling author, was twice elected president of the American P.E.N.
Center, and won the National Book Award in 1969 for “Steps,” a well-received collection of short stories. In the interim, Kosinski also became a celebrity and fodder for gossip columnists. His face was on magazine covers. He made regular appearances on television, including a dozen guest spots on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and acted in a Hollywood film (“Reds”). He married an heiress and socialite, later married a German aristocrat, and became something of a polo-playing playboy.
According to a rather sensational 1996 biography by James Park Sloan, Kosinski was a serial philanderer and frequent visitor at orgies and sex clubs. In August 1969, Kosinski was scheduled to be the house guest of actress Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski, an old friend since their university days in Lodz, but missed his flight to Los Angeles and thus avoided being murdered by the Charles Manson gang.
Kosinski’s subsequent decades held a lot less drama. While “The Painted Bird,” “Steps” and “Being There” each proved to have a lengthy shelf life, Kosinski did not.
His ensuing half-dozen novels were widely regarded as failures. Johnny Carson was no longer on TV and neither was Kosinski. At the age of 58 Kosinski committed suicide in New York via a combination of drugs, alcohol and asphyxiation by plastic bag. He left behind a bitter suicide note.
Stories of dramatic rise and fall are always compelling, but beyond that, why should we care today, a half-century after the appearance of Kosinski and his “Painted Bird”? I submit we should care because the novel has been unfairly written out of the canon of Holocaust literature.
“The Painted Bird” has been pushed aside for a number of reasons. The first is Kosinski himself. For one thing, he hardly endeared himself to his fellow Jews, arguably the chief audience for Holocaust literature. Beyond lying about his Jewish origins, Kosinski was prone to provocative statements.
In “Oral Pleasure,” a collection of Kosinski’s essays, speeches and the like edited in 2012 by his widow Kiki Kosinski, we find the writer repeatedly sniping at American Jews and defending the behavior of Polish Christians in the Nazi era. (He once enraged an audience in Tel Aviv by dismissing Claude Lanzmann’s documentary “Shoah” as “biased.”) He also decried the proliferation of Holocaust museums and memorials.
Couple such courting of controversy with his self-promotion, his flamboyant and notorious lifestyle and his serial prevarications, and it becomes evident Kosinski was often his own worst enemy.
Yet admirable literature is not necessarily the product of admirable persons; the list of notable authors who were substance abusers, adulterers, cheats, liars, cranks, and criminals, petty and felonious, is perhaps as long as, oh, Pound’s “Cantos.”
A related charge is that “The Painted Bird” should be dismissed because its author did not suffer the miseries of its narrator. At one level this argument is specious in that it suggests Dostoyevsky should not have dared write “Crime and Punishment” without himself having committed murder. In regard to Holocaust literature, however, the matter is more contentious. It may be argued that anyone lacking the “credentials” of suffering through the Holocaust cannot legitimately describe it or speak on behalf of its victims.
The notion is that “if you weren’t there, you can have no idea what it was like.”
THIS VIEW has considerable force, a nd is true – up to a point. On the one hand, even the most “accurate” Holocaust memoir or testimony is, first, filtered through memory, trauma and the exigencies of language, and second, such recall, no matter how earnest and truthful, is still the product of an individual. That individual may be able to tell us what the Holocaust was like for that person, but perhaps for only that person; it may be argued that no two survivors experienced the same Holocaust.
At the same time, to say that the Holocaust should not be a source for the imagination is to assert that Cynthia Ozick should not have written “The Shawl,” Thomas Keneally had no business writing “Schindler’s Ark” and likewise with any number of other writers – including the fantasist Kosinski. It is certainly true that many works of Holocaust fiction are thin, exploitative, sensational or at the very least failures in terms of enhancing our understanding. Yet Ozick, Keneally, Kosinski and many others have used the cover of fiction – as fiction often serves – to uncover truths.
The novels and short stories of Primo Levi, Tadeusz Borowski, Piotr Rawicz, Elie Wiesel and other survivors clearly have a certain power because they were written by survivors. But works by others – novelists, poets, painters, filmmakers – may have their own truths because they are created by artists of profound imagination and perception.
To claim meanwhile that the Holocaust era must be out of bounds for writers of fiction is akin to denying the legitimacy of all historical fiction – or perhaps all fiction, whether “Don Quixote” or “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Ultimately, to assert that “if you weren’t there, you can have no idea what it was like” only suggests no point in writing for those who weren’t there – and certainly not much for those who were.
A final argument for keeping “The Painted Bird” out of what Ruth Franklin calls “the Holocaust canon” is in regard to phony Holocaust memoirs and the small but enduring phenomenon of Holocaust denial.
The postwar era has seen the publication of several Holocaust memoirs eventually unmasked as inventions. To name only the best known: Benjamin Wilkomirski’s “Fragments”; Misha Defonseca’s “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years”; Herman Rosenblat’s “Angel at the Fence.”
These books, along with inflated soldiers’ tales and other works of dubious provenance and veracity have fueled the pathologies of Holocaust deniers, who are happy to extrapolate from memoir scandals and claim that everything about the Holocaust is a pack of lies created by self-serving Jews and Zionists. But Holocaust deniers don’t rely on the uncovering of false memoirs and the like. Holocaust deniers will maintain their fantasies with or without supporting evidence.
Interestingly, even as the Holocaust recedes into history the era continues to inspire remarkable fiction. Jim Shepard’s deeply researched “The Book of Aron” (The Jerusalem Report, November 16) is a recent and outstanding example. The more I’ve learned about Jerzy Kosinski the less I like him. Yet after 50 years “The Painted Bird” remains among the most illuminating of Holocaust imaginings. It is unforgettable – and should not be forgotten.