Just the Facts?
By DANIEL SEPTIMUS
The Painted Bird
By Jerzey Kosinski
234 pages. Grove Press. $10.
In Philip Roth’s recently published novel The Plot Against America, Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin
Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and makes a pact with Hitler
not to enter World War II. Aside for its ramifications overseas, the situation
affects those in the United States, as American Jews suffer an unprecedented wave
Historically speaking, Roth’s plot is obviously fantastic. The novel’s
counterfactual history is a device that allows Roth to explore his childhood
and the capriciousness of world events. No one will mistake Roth’s fiction for
reality. In fact, the conscious deviation from actuality helps create a unique
psychic space to ponder the past and present. The novel’s falsity enlightens
Of course, a work that unconsciously challenges
the relationship between fact and fiction can have the opposite effect, and
such is the case with Jerzy Kosinski’s The
When it was published in 1965, The Painted Bird was lauded as one of the
most poignant and powerful evocations of the Holocaust, particularly because it
was not a prototypical example of WWII literature. The book has no
concentration camp scenes, no descriptions of mass slaughter, and hardly any
Nazis. The Painted Bird follows the
wanderings of a young boy—believed to be a Gypsy, though he may be Jewish—whose
parents entrust him into the arms of a stranger, believing his chances of
survival are better without them. But the boy’s foster mother dies within
months, and he spends the next several years drifting from village to village
suffering a myriad of brutalities at the hands of the local peasants.
The Painted Bird is a novel, but Kosinski led people to believe that the
plot was based on his wartime experiences. Indeed, before writing his review of
The Painted Bird for The
New York Times Elie Wiesel spoke to
Kosinski and asked him two questions: “Is your book based on fact?” and “Are
you Jewish?” Kosinski answered yes to the former, no to the latter. But
Kosinski was Jewish, and he later denied telling Wiesel otherwise. He even
threatened to sue the Forverts, which published Wiesel’s
account of this conversation.
This early test to Kosinski’s honesty and credibility was initially overlooked.
Kosinski won the National Book Award for Steps in
1969 and followed with the popular Being There
in 1971. He also wrote the screenplay for the film version of Being There, which starred Peter Sellers and Shirley
Kosinski enjoyed his success. He socialized with the literati and glitterati,
married a socialite, and even had a small role in the film Reds. But Kosinski’s fame
eventually morphed into infamy. Grumblings about Kosinski’s strange
behavior—including possible sexual misbehavior—and charges of plagiarism had
swirled around Kosinski for years, but in 1982, the Village Voice published an expose revealing that The Painted
Bird did not authentically reflect Kosinski’s experiences during the war.
The Voice also publicized the research of Barbara Tepa, whose doctoral
dissertation showed that extensive sections of Kosinski’s work were taken from
Polish sources unlikely to be encountered by English-speaking readers. Kosinski
was also charged with hiring uncredited editors to write much of his books.
Most of these findings were confirmed by James Park Sloan in his 1996 biography
of Kosinski, though the writer’s disgrace and despair was by this time long
Kosinski committed suicide in 1991 at the age of 58.
The Painted Bird is ruthless in its depiction of peasant cruelty, and
because the Nazis' unique weaponry—the gas chambers and crematoria—are absent
from the story, the barbarity is more Sade than Wiesel. The
protagonist is beaten, bitten, and hung upside down. After being tossed into a
puddle of feces, he is rendered mute. Nor is the boy the only object of the
peasants’ violence and perversions. The boy witnesses people trampled, skinned,
and raped. After finding temporary solace as the sex toy of a young woman, his
brief comfort is shattered when he observes her fornicating with a goat, then
her brother—all as her father looks on.
But if Kosinski fabricated these scenes, what are we to make of them? Does the
fact that Kosinski never “officially” claimed that The Painted Bird was
autobiographical matter? Must we judge a fraudulent writer of “Holocaust”
literature more severely than other literary frauds? After all, Kosinski’s
fabrication may add grist to the revisionist ’s mill. This question is even
more acute as the age of the eyewitness comes to a close. Soon the survivors
and perpetrators of the Holocaust will be gone, and as their memories fade into
oblivion, we will be left only with representations of these memories. Perhaps
we should be vigilant in segregating factual representations from created ones.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that The Painted Bird is authentic Holocaust literature by virtue of the
fact that it emerged from Kosinski’s Holocaust-shattered consciousness.
Indeed, the quandaries presented by The Painted Bird are innumerable, and ironically, this
might just guarantee its classic status.