THE PAINTED BIRD
BOOKS BY JERZY KOSINSKI
The Painted Bird
The Devil Tree
The Hermit of 69th Street
Notes of the Author
The Art of the Self
(Under the pen name Joseph Novak)
The Future Is Ours, Comrade
No Third Path
with an introduction
by the author
To the memory of my wife Mary Hayward Weir
without whom even the past would
lose its meaning
Copyright © 1965, 1976 by Jerzy N. Kosinski
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First published in the United States of America in 1976 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Published simultaneously in Canada
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The painted bird/Jerzy Kosinski; with an introduction by the author.—2nd ed.
eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9575-3
1. Poland—History—Occupation, 1939-1945—Fiction. 2. World War, 1939-1945—Europe, Eastern—Fiction. 3. Abandoned children—Europe, Eastern—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3561.O8P3 1995 813’.54—dc20 95-19520
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
and only God,
knew they were mammals
of a different breed.
This new edition of The Painted Bird incorporates some
material that did not appear in the first edition.
In the spring of 1963, I visited Switzerland with my American-born wife, Mary. We had vacationed there before, but were now in the country for a different purpose: my wife had been battling a supposedly incurable illness for months and had come to Switzerland to consult yet another group of specialists. Since we expected to remain for some time, we had taken a suite in a palatial hotel that dominated the lake-front of a fashionable old resort.
Among the permanent residents at the hotel was a clique of wealthy Western Europeans who had come to the town just before the outbreak of World War II. They had all abandoned their homelands before the slaughter actually began and they never had to fight for their lives. Once ensconced in their Swiss haven, self-preservation for them meant no more than living from day to day. Most of them were in their seventies and eighties, aimless pensioners obsessively talking about getting old, growing steadily less able or willing to leave the hotel grounds. They spent their time in the lounges and restaurants or strolling through the private park. I often followed them, pausing when they did before portraits of statesmen who had visited the hotel between the wars; I read with them the somber plaques commemorating various international peace conferences that had been held in the hotel’s convention halls after World War I.
Occasionally I would chat with a few of these voluntary exiles, but whenever I alluded to the war years in Central or Eastern Europe, they never failed to remind me that, because they had come to Switzerland before the violence began, they knew the war only vaguely, through radio and newspaper reports. Referring to one country in which most of the extermination camps had been located, I pointed out that between 1939 and 1945 only a million people had died as the result of direct military action, but five and a half million had been exterminated by the invaders. Over three million victims were Jews, and one third of them were under sixteen. These losses worked out to two hundred and twenty deaths per thousand people, and no one would ever be able to compute how many others were mutilated, traumatized, broken in health or spirit. My listeners nodded politely, admitting that they had always believed that reports about the camps and gas chambers had been much embellished by overwrought reporters. I assured them that, having spent my childhood and adolescence during the war and postwar years in Eastern Europe, I knew that real events had been far more brutal than the most bizarre fantasies.
On days when my wife was confined to the clinic for treatment, I would hire a car and drive, with no destination in mind. I cruised along smartly manicured Swiss roads winding through fields which bristled with squat steel and concrete tank traps, planted dur-the war to impede advancing tanks. They still stood, a crumbling defense against an invasion that was never launched, as out of place and purposeless as the antiquated exiles at the hotel.
Many afternoons, I rented a boat and rowed aimlessly on the lake. During those moments I experienced my isolation intensely: my wife, the emotional link to my existence in the United States, was dying. I could contact what remained of my family in Eastern Europe only through infrequent, cryptic letters, always at the mercy of the censor.
As I drifted across the lake, I felt haunted by a sense of hopelessness; not merely loneliness, or the fear of my wife’s death, but a sense of anguish directly connected to the emptiness of the exiles’ lives and the ineffectiveness of the postwar peace conferences. As I thought of the plaques that adorned the hotel walls I questioned whether the authors of peace treaties had signed them in good faith. The events that followed the conferences did not support such a conjecture. Yet the aging exiles in the hotel continued to believe that the war had been some inexplicable aberration in a world of well-intentioned politicians whose humani-tarianism could not be challenged. They could not accept that certain guarantors of peace had later become the initiators of war. Because of this disbelief, millions like my parents and myself, lacking any chance to escape, had been forced to experience events far worse than those that the treaties so grandiloquently prohibited.
The extreme discrepancy between the facts as I knew them and the exiles’ and diplomats’ hazy, unrealistic view of the world bothered me intensely. I began to reexamine my past and decided to turn from my studies of social science to fiction. Unlike politics, which offered only extravagant promises of a Utopian future, I knew fiction could present lives as they are truly lived.
When I had come to America six years before this European visit, I was determined never again to set foot in the country where I had spent the war years. That I had survived was due solely to chance, and I had always been acutely aware that hundreds of thousands of other children had been condemned. But although I felt strongly about that injustice, I did not perceive myself as a vendor of personal guilt and private reminiscences, nor as a chronicler of the disaster that befell my people and my generation, but purely as a storyteller.
“. . . the truth is the only thing in which peopl
e do not differ. Everyone is subconsciously mastered by the spiritual will to live, by the aspiration to live at any cost; one wants to live because one lives, because the whole world lives . . .” wrote a Jewish concentration camp inmate shortly before his death in the gas chamber. “We are here in the company of death,” wrote another inmate. “They tattoo the newcomers. Everyone gets his number. From that moment on you have lost your ‘self and have become transformed into a number. You no longer are what you were before, but a worthless moving number . . . We are approaching our new graves . . . iron discipline reigns here in the camp of death. Our brain has grown dull, the thoughts are numbered: it is not possible to grasp this new language . . .”
My purpose in writing a novel was to examine “this new language” of brutality and its consequent new counter-language of anguish and despair. The book would be written in English, in which I had already written two works of social psychology, having relinquished my mother tongue when I abandoned my homeland. Moreover, as English was still new to me, I could write dispassionately, free from the emotional connotation one’s native language always contains.
As the story began to evolve, I realized that I wanted to extend certain themes, modulating them through a series of five novels. This five-book cycle would present archetypal aspects of the individual’s relationship to society. The first book of the cycle was to deal with the most universally accessible of these societal metaphors: man would be portrayed in his most vulnerable state, as a child, and society in its most deadly form, in a state of war. I hoped the confrontation between the defenseless individual and overpowering society, between the child and war, would represent the essential anti-human condition.
Furthermore, it seemed to me, novels about childhood demand the ultimate act of imaginative involvement. Since we have no direct access to that most sensitive, earliest period of our lives, we must recreate it before we can begin to assess our present selves. Although all novels force us into such an act of transference, making us experience ourselves as different beings, it is generally more difficult to imagine ourselves as children than as adults.
As I began to write, I recalled The Birds, the satirical play by Aristophanes. His protagonists, based on important citizens of ancient Athens, were made anonymous in an idyllic natural realm, “a land of easy and fair rest, where man can sleep safely and grow feathers.” I was struck by the pertinence and universality of the setting Aristophanes had provided more than two millennia ago.
Aristophanes’ symbolic use of birds, which allowed him to deal with actual events and characters without the restrictions which the writing of history imposes, seemed particularly appropriate, as I associated it with a peasant custom I had witnessed during my childhood. One of the villagers’ favorite entertainments was trapping birds, painting their feathers, then releasing them to rejoin their flock. As these brightly colored creatures sought the safety of their fellows, the other birds, seeing them as threatening aliens, attacked and tore at the outcasts until they killed them. I decided I too would set my work in a mythic domain, in the timeless fictive present, unrestrained by geography or history. My novel would be called The Painted Bird.
Because I saw myself solely as a storyteller, the first edition of The Painted Bird carried only minimal information about me and I refused to give any interviews. Yet this very stand placed me in a position of conflict. Well-intentioned writers, critics, and readers sought facts to back up their claims that the novel was autobiographical. They wanted to cast me in the role of spokesman for my generation, especially for those who had survived the war; but for me survival was an individual action that earned the survivor the right to speak only for himself. Facts about my life and my origins, I felt, should not be used to test the book’s authenticity, any more than they should be used to encourage readers to read The Painted Bird.
Furthermore, I felt then, as I do now, that fiction and autobiography are very different modes. Autobiography emphasizes a single life: the reader is invited to become the observer of another man’s existence and encouraged to compare his own life to the subject’s. A fictional life, on the other hand, forces the reader to contribute: he does not simply compare; he actually enters a fictional role, expanding it in terms of his own experience, his own creative and imaginative powers.
I remained determined that the novel’s life be independent of mine. I objected when many foreign publishers refused to issue The Painted Bird without including, as a preface or as an epilogue, excerpts from my personal correspondence with one of my first foreign-language publishers. They hoped that these excerpts would soften the book’s impact. I had written these letters in order to explain, rather than mitigate, the novel’s vision; thrust between the book and its readers, they violated the novel’s integrity, interjecting my immediate presence into a work intended to stand by itself. The paperback version of The Painted Bird, which followed a year after the original, contained no biographical information at all. Perhaps it was because of this that many school reading lists placed Kosinski not among contemporary writers, but among the deceased.
After The Painted Bird’s publication in the United States and in Western Europe (it was never published in my homeland, nor allowed across its borders), certain East European newspapers and magazines launched a campaign against it. Despite their ideological differences, many journals attacked the same passages from the novel (usually quoted out of context) and altered sequences to support their accusations. Outraged editorials in State-controlled publications charged that American authorities had assigned me to write The Painted Bird for covert political purposes. These publications, ostensibly unaware that every book published in the United States must be registered by the Library of Congress, even cited the Library catalogue number as conclusive evidence that the United States government had subsidized the book. Conversely, the anti-Soviet periodicals singled out the positive light in which, they claimed, I had portrayed the Russian soldiers, as proof that the book attempted to justify the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe.
Most Eastern European condemnation focused on the novel’s alleged specificity. Although I had made sure that the names of people and places I used could not be associated exclusively with any national group, my critics accused The Painted Bird of being a libelous documentary of life in identifiable communities during the Second World War. Some detractors even insisted that my references to folklore and native customs, so brazenly detailed, were caricatures of their particular home provinces. Still others attacked the novel for distorting native lore, for defaming the peasant character, and for reinforcing the propaganda weapons of the region’s enemies.
As I later learned, these diverse criticisms were part of a large-scale attempt by an extreme nationalist group to create a feeling of danger and disruption within my homeland, a plot intended to force the remaining Jewish population to leave the State. The New York Times reported that The Painted Bird was being denounced as propaganda by reactionary forces “seeking an armed showdown with Eastern Europe.” Ironically, the novel began to assume a role not unlike that of its protagonist, the boy, a native who has become an alien, a Gypsy who is believed to command destructive forces and to be able to cast spells over all who cross his path.
The campaign against the book, which had been generated in the capital of the country, soon spread throughout the nation. Within a few weeks, several hundred articles and an avalanche of gossip items appeared. The state-controlled television network commenced a series, “In the Footsteps of The Painted Bird,” presenting interviews with persons who had supposedly come in contact with me or my family during the war years. The interviewer would read a passage from The Painted Bird, then produce a person he claimed was the individual on whom the fictional character was based. As these disoriented, often uneducated witnesses were brought forward, horrified at what they were supposed to have done, they angrily denounced the book and its author.
One of Eastern Europe’s most accomplished and revered aut
hors read The Painted Bird in its French translation and praised the novel in his review. Government pressure soon forced him to recant. He published his revised opinion, then followed it with an “Open Letter to Jerzy Kosinski,” which appeared in the literary magazine he himself edited. In it, he warned me that I, like another prize-winning novelist who had betrayed his native language for an alien tongue and the praise of the decadent West, would end my days by cutting my throat in some seedy hotel on the Riviera.
At the time of the publication of The Painted Bird, my mother, my only surviving blood relative, was in her sixties and had undergone two operations for cancer. When the leading local newspaper discovered she was still living in the city where I had been born, it printed scurrilous articles referring to her as the mother of a renegade, inciting local zealots and crowds of enraged townspeople to descend upon her house. Summoned by my mother’s nurse, the police arrived but stood idly by, only pretending to control the vigilantes.
When an old school friend telephoned me in New York to tell me, guardedly, what was happening, I mobilized whatever support I could from international organizations, but for months it seemed to do little good, for the angry townspeople, none of whom had actually seen my book, continued their attacks. Finally government officials, embarrassed by pressures brought by concerned organizations outside the country, ordered the municipal authorities to move my mother to another town. She remained there for a few weeks until the assaults died down, then moved to the capital, leaving everything behind her. With the help of certain friends, I was able to keep informed about her whereabouts and to get money to her regularly.
Although most of her family had been exterminated in the country which now persecuted her, my mother refused to emigrate, insisting that she wanted to die and be buried next to my father, in the land where she had been born and where all her people had perished. When she did die, her death was made an occasion of shame and a warning to her friends. No public announcement of the funeral was permitted by the authorities, and the simple death notice was not published until several days after her burial.