Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1965 novel is a text so overwhelmed by its various contexts that it is almost impossible to read. It was still ubiquitous as a semi-illicit paperback when I was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reputed to be an overwhelmingly intense and filthy book. I accordingly tried to read it when I was 11 or 12, but couldn’t make head or tail of it; I had better luck with Kosinski’s later novel, the National Book Award-winning Steps (1968). Steps is an episodic novella in the mode of pornographic dystopia, and I read it in one sitting, fascinated and revolted and pool-dazed. It also, famously, made an impression on David Foster Wallace, who should have learned a thing or two from its brevity.

I abandoned any plans I had to read The Painted Bird when I discovered that it was regarded as a sham, that its author (a kind of counterculture celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s) had falsely advertised the novel to his publishers as autobiography, and that many of his works may have been either partially plagiarized or partially written or translated for the author, still uneasy in the English language, by editors.

Once hailed by the literati as an instant classic, praised by Arthur Miller and Anaïs Nin and Elie Wiesel, canonized as a contribution to the literature of the Shoah, The Painted Bird came to be regarded as a mere hoax, notably denounced by Norman Finkelstein as one more piece of false advertising for what he controversially called “the Holocaust industry.” Kosinski, who committed suicide in 1991, seemed by the turn of the millennium to belong not in the literary canon but in the annals of notorious confidence men.

So it is surprising to turn to the actual text of the novel, as I finally have, and to find a carefully composed narrative, delicately written and thematically unified. Scholars and critics differ as to the actual provenance of the text, except to note that the horrors it narrates are decidedly not autobiographical: the Jewish Kosinski spent the war sheltered by a Polish Catholic family, not wandering the novel’s psychosexual nightmarescape version of Poland’s countryside.

In fact, The Painted Bird is so manifestly symbolic, the extreme events it narrates so difficult to credit, that I have a hard time believing anyone could have taken it as an unvarnished memoir. Appearing around the same time as The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the first publication of The Master and Margarita, Kosinski’s book might usefully be regarded as magical realism. Elie Wiesel, to be fair, acknowledges as much in his New York Times review, quoted at length on the first page of my edition:

If we ever needed proof that Auschwitz was more a concept than a name, it is given to us here with shattering eloquence in The Painted Bird, a moving but frightening tale in which man is indicted and proven guilty, with no extenuating circumstances.

I would dispute only the word “proof” there: as befits a work of the literary imagination rather than of the mind in recollection, The Painted Bird gives proof only of its author’s sensibility. Kosinski’s sensibility is neither pleasant nor entirely original, but it is fascinating and bizarre enough, especially as rendered in this novel’s wonderfully economical prose, to commend this novel as more than a hoax—rather, as good fiction, a compelling “tale,” to use Wiesel’s most apt word.

The premise of the tale, as noted by D. G. Myers, who also judges the novel “great” despite the problems posed by Kosinski’s biography, is that Auschwitz is, for those who came after it, the truth of their world:

The Painted Bird is notorious for its horrors: eyeballs are gouged out of sockets, animals are tortured, women are violated with bottles holding manure, men are devoured by rats. “The Germans puzzled me,” the boy says. “Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?”

This is the question that Kosinski’s whole life was given over to answering. That he died by his own hand suggests that his answer, finally, was No. And so Kosinski joined a line of Holocaust writers—Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi—who by committing suicide testified that the world was beyond repair. Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski’s own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust.

Another blurb, this one on the back of my old paperback edition, where it is jarringly discordant with the grotesque wraparound cover illustration, compares Kosinski to Anne Frank. Even allowing for Cynthia Ozick’s wise warning not to sanctify Frank, this is highly misleading; The Painted Bird belongs on the shelf with Sade, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Bataille, not with The Diary of a Young Girl.

From the uncredited cover illustration of the 1970 Pocket Books edition.

The novel is the retrospective narrative of a young boy’s journey through rural Poland during World War II after his parents have sent him away from the city to protect him from the Nazis.

In the countryside, rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment as well as with magical folk beliefs about metaphysics and medicine, the narrator encounters a sequence of grotesque and violent incidents, from the fire he accidentally sets that destroys the home of his first caretaker to the brutal gang rape and murder of a later caretaker’s lover. He witnesses incest and bestiality, he is systematically tortured by a peasant with a fearsome dog, he is nearly drowned in an iced-over pond, he is thrown into a pit of manure by an incensed mob, and he is even captured by German soldiers, only to be released in a mysterious act of mercy by a glamorous Nazi officer, whose power and command the boy admires:

The instant I saw him I could not tear my gaze from him. His entire person seemed to have something utterly superhuman about it. Against the background of bland colors he protected an unfadable blackness. In a world of men with harrowed faces, with smashed eyes, bloody, bruised, and disfigured limbs, among the fetid, broken human bodies, of which I had already seen so many, he seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth, polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under the peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force.

Along the way, the boy accedes to folk belief about his status as an evil being (due to his being, in the peasants’ eyes, a “Jew” or “Gypsy”), adopts Catholicism and begs God to intercede on his behalf, decides that Satanic powers truly rule the world and tries to join the side of the evildoers, admires what he sees as the knowledge and power of the Germans who wish to subjugate him, and, finally, when liberated by the Red Army, accepts communism’s promise of the brotherhood of man until the flaws in that ideology, too, with its own trampling of the individual, become apparent.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Painted Bird is a bildungsroman that follows its budding hero’s consciousness into wider and wider contexts, each new one revealing the limitations of the previous. Struck mute during his ordeal, the boy regains his voice at the novel’s conclusion; in other words, having passed through these ordeals and ideologies, he becomes capable of telling his story.

But if the latter development sounds like a sentimental anticipation of official multiculturalism’s favorite trope of literature as “voice,” the rest of the The Painted Bird is a decidedly more decadent affair. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, when reading scene after scene of vivid brutality, that the novel’s briskly-narrated phantasmagoria indulges an aestheticization of violence to the point of pornography. The regaining of voice at the conclusion even recalls the pornographer’s old alibi of having told a moral tale, while Kosinski’s deeper account of individualism, in keeping with the boy’s admiration for the Nazi officer and later for Stalin, involves the right of the strong to re-order the world at will according to their own aesthetic designs, precisely the game Kosinski played with history when he passed this off as his autobiography.

To support an interpretation that emphasizes individualism, consider the titular metaphor. The novel’s title comes from an early episode wherein another of the boy’s caretakers, a peasant bird-trapper named Lekh, would regularly choose a bird and paint its feathers in bright colors and then release it; when this painted bird would attempt to rejoin its flock, its fellows, disturbed by its dazzling and artificial coloration, would set on it and kill it. The Cold War moral is clear: individual vs. society.

As A. E. M. Baumann points out in his excellent Jungian reading of the novel, Kosinski portrays all collectivities, from rural peasantry to Soviet empire, as essentially hostile to individuation:

The effect within the book of this continuity between worlds and beliefs works not only on the grand scale but also to the specific. For example, when we meet Lekh the bird catcher, and read of the demise of the bird painted by Lekh, the whole of the scene is likewise brought into the mythic unity of the book. The scene is not an artificially inserted metaphor: it presents an idea already inherent to the world-systems of the Polish peasants, inherent to their belief systems: and as will be seen, inherent to all cultures, even to the “equality” within the new, Russian state. As such, the antagonism between the individual and culture that is the center of The Painted Bird is from the start inherent to the whole of the world through which the boy passes. In turn, through that unity, that antagonism is brought out of the historical and into the mythic.

Fair enough, but the reader also has the right to be disturbed by the total amorality of this mythical version of individualism, with the persecuted painted bird’s wish to join the flock and envy of its most powerful members (e.g., the Nazi officer), even with this myth’s affinity not only for what the boy sees as German style and swagger but also for the Nazis’ imperial view of the Polish populace, which the novel literally dehumanizes (per the bestiality motif).

When contemplating the ideological possibilities of an individualism untethered from morality, it is a relief that such a vision produces in this novel only a version of aestheticism, only the voice to tell the tale, rather than anything more severe. In this sense, Kosinski pits the paint of the painted bird against the violence of the flock; the novel implicitly and ultimately exalts the artist, who represents only his own idiosyncrasy, over the officer who marches on behalf of a collective.

To end on this aesthetic note, whoever wrote The Painted Bird wrote it effectively. (On the authorship question, I observe that Samuel Beckett’s first literary agent, the Irish writer George Reavey, is another claimant; and there is something of Beckett, if not his humane and humorous awareness of universal suffering, in this novel.) Its crisp narrative is a well-paced succession of sensory detail given in a style that is simple without being affected like that of a Hemingway epigone or someone imitating the paratactical style of the Bible; the novel would repay strictly formal study by the student. Orwell’s ideal of prose as a windowpane comes to mind, as long as we recall that the window is really a painting, and that the painted vista is, for better and for worse, almost entirely the product of Kosinski’s imagination.


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