Forty years ago this Oct. 15, Houghton Mifflin published “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosinski. The book was immediately acclaimed as a must-read text on the Holocaust and the nature of human cruelty.
In the years leading up to and following Kosinski’s 1991 suicide, his reputation was tarnished by a series of revelations that the author employed uncredited editors and associates to produce his novels, and that much of Kosinski’s personal history was fabricated.
Nonetheless, the reputation of “The Painted Bird” has endured. Grove, which has published “The Painted Bird” in paperback since 1995, won’t divulge sales figures, but a sales rep called it “one of the mainstays of our backlist.”
Recently, I re-read the 1965 original first edition, as well as the edition currently on the shelves, which Kosinski revised and published with a new introduction in 1976. (There are notable differences between the two.) I wanted to understand the novel’s continued appeal.
“The Painted Bird” is the story of a young boy, age 6 when the novel begins, whose parents, to protect him, consign him to a family in the country at the start of World War II. When his caretaker dies, he wanders from village to village until the war’s end, witnessing and suffering acts of cruelty and perversion. After one particular incident, he becomes mute.
After liberation, he falls under the spell of a few Red Army soldiers, who leave him at an orphanage until his parents reclaim him. At age 16, after a skiing accident, he regains his speech.
The novel spends almost the first hundred pages without even mentioning the Nazis, detailing instead the lives and folk beliefs of rural peasants. Actually, the word Nazis is never used, only “the Germans.”
A short section, about halfway through the book, describes the trains to the extermination camps — and they are cited toward the end of the book, as well. But for the most part, on its surface, the book has little to do with the Holocaust.
This is all the more interesting, given that we now know that “The Painted Bird” is not inspired by literal events in Kosinski’s life, as some originally assumed. Kosinski spent the war years in relative safety, living with his parents under false papers.
In relation to both the Holocaust and the author’s own life, “The Painted Bird” presents a series of metaphors and allegories through its vignettes of cruelty, perversion and humiliation — all tinged with sadism — more often than not culminating in rape.
The book’s title refers to a tale of a bird whose feathers are painted, and because it is different, other birds attack it and kill it.
Some scenes are repulsive — I had recalled the episodes, but I had not remembered them as being so detached and gratuitous. More than once I put the book down, wondering why more readers were not offended by the book’s contents, particularly at the time it was originally published.
Yet once I had finished the novel, I felt differently. I understood why the novel succeeds and remains popular to this day.
In part because ‘The Painted Bird” does not describe the Holocaust as we have come to know it, or any world as we know it, the reader implicitly accepts that the novel operates metaphorically.
Adolescents relate to this tale, in particular, because they are themselves in a state of war, a time of us vs. them, a time when youths feel most acutely that they are “different.” It’s a time when they feel besieged, tormented by peers and estranged from the adults surrounding them.
Adolescence is a time when children are beginning to separate from their parents; this separation occurs literally within the book.
Moreover, children in adolescence stand on the threshold of sex. Their notions and ideas and their introduction to what sex is, to how sexual relations are conducted, all are informed by the yearnings of hormonal surges.
For many children, their first glimpses of sexual acts — whether it be of animals or from pornographic or erotic materials — can convey a graphic vision of sex that is seemingly detached, demeaning, abusive or even violent. And yet, these images remain powerful and stimulating nonetheless. Again, this captivating repulsion is consistent with the scenes in “The Painted Bird,” which present a heightened, more shocking version of reality, but one that resonates.
In the novel, Kosinski explains the murderous and deviant impulses of his characters within the context of the powerless and the powerful. At some level, Kosinski, who had a life-long fascination with S & M, presents the homicidal urge as an exercise of feeling power over another person.
At a remove of more than 60 years, the images we have of the Holocaust in Poland, of the ghettos and the camps, have an expected quality to them. Yet, “The Painted Bird” continues to offend, to disgust — and its haunting tales have an unexpected quality — in part because they remain unfamiliar to us. At the same time, these stories derive an added dimension, added power if you will, from being set during the war years and the period immediately following the war.
The novel’s artistry is such that its ugliness rises to the level of importance. After reading the novel, one is prepared to accept, in a way one resists while reading it, that Kosinski’s novel has served a purpose — that in an abstract way, it has explained something of the cruelty that caused humans to participate in the Holocaust, some with glee, some as a matter-of-everyday existence.
In this way, “The Painted Bird” rightly assumes its place as a work about the Holocaust — despite some troubling aspects. In one scene, a Jewish girl escapes from a train bound for the death camps, only to be raped to death. Kosinski seems to assert that it is better to die raped as a woman than incinerated as a Jew.
Beyond that, “The Painted Bird” argues that brutality against those who are different is part of nature — like the fate of the painted bird — and that the Holocaust was, sadly, not so unnatural. It was an all-too-possible aspect of human nature above and beyond the part played by the philosophy of National Socialism or by racism or by a Final Solution. Acceptance of the Holocaust, and participation in it, was part and parcel of the natural inclination of the peasantry who abhorred people different from themselves and often acted perversely and cruelly even among their own.
To universalize his message, Kosinski obscures specificity. Kosinski implies the boy is Jewish but never says so, hiding behind the possibility that he is Jewish or Gypsy or might just look Jewish or like a Gypsy.
Significantly, Kosinski changed the location of where the boy was wandering from Poland in the first edition to “Central Europe” in subsequent editions. Also during the war years, the two people who show mercy to the boy and let him escape are German soldiers — leaving us to wonder whether the peasants are not worse than even the Nazis.
Similarly, although the boy falls under the spell of Red Army soldiers, life under communist rule seems no less cruel than under the Germans. The boy takes to wandering his home city at night and exacts revenge on a boy by dropping a brick on his head.
In the revised edition, the novel ends with the boy regaining his speech. However, the original first edition concludes with a postscript that describes life under the communists as a place where the inner life is imprisoned as much as outer life was restricted under the Germans.
Kosinski’s attempt to take a universal or sociological perspective to his narrative creates moments of moral relativism that belie the uniqueness of what the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and the Gypsies and diminishes the role of their collaborators.
Today, the novel comes with a preface, called an “Afterword,” written for the 1976 edition. In it, Kosinski explained that he wanted to write something that was separate from an autobiography.
For one thing, he intended the novel as a blow against the communist establishment. And it was received as such — Kosinski and his work were banned and attacked behind the Iron Curtain. He also pointed out that what happened in “The Painted Bird” was credible and sometimes less violent, horrible and cruel than what happened in the Holocaust itself.
In effect, Kosinski wanted it all: If it didn’t happen to him, it was true nonetheless, and he was heroic in writing it, as he suffered and was attacked for having done so.
Given Kosinski’s actual biography, this makes some sense. He wanted to write about what he knew — which was not the details of the Holocaust but a more detached experience within wartime Poland; he saw himself as both hero and victim of his own narrative.
As James Park Sloan details in his thorough 1996 biography of the author, Kosinski was born into an intellectual, assimilated Jewish family in Lodz, Poland. Although his extended family lost more than 60 members in the Holocaust, Kosinski did not personally witness atrocities.
During the war, he learned that lying was survival and that standing out could mean death. After the war, he grew up in a communist society devoid of religious practice or identity, where the state’s interests outweighed those of the individual.
Kosinski came to the United States in 1957 as a sociology graduate student, and within a few years, he was writing nonfiction, explaining the Soviet collective mind to Western audiences.
It is not surprising that when Kosinski sat down to write fiction in the early 1960s, he chose to write about what he knew best. As he could not write about the Holocaust itself, Kosinski confabulated childhood and war.
Taught as a child to lie about his life, he did so again, ironically, in a work of fiction. He wrote about the dangers of being a painted bird — while playing the part himself by writing a novel in America about torture, sodomy and rape. Having been powerless, he became the master of his own destiny, playing out his fascination with sadism and with power. The resulting novel, “The Painted Bird,” continues to fascinate, shock, disgust and compel us transcendently to this day.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he”s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.