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 of anti-Semitism.

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 us.

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 Painted Bird.

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 MacLaine.

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 consummated.

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.