The painted bird, p.2
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       The Painted Bird, p.2
 

           Jerzy Kosiński

  In the United States, press reports of these foreign attacks provoked a flood of anonymous threatening letters from naturalized Eastern Europeans, who felt I had slandered their countrymen and maligned their ethnic heritage. Almost none of the nameless letter writers seemed to have actually read The Painted Bird; most of them merely parroted the East European attacks carried secondhand in émigré publications.

  One day when I was alone in my Manhattan apartment, the bell rang. Assuming it was a delivery I expected, I immediately opened the door. Two burly men in heavy raincoats pushed me into the room, slamming the door shut behind them. They pinned me against the wall and examined me closely. Apparently confused, one of them pulled a newspaper clipping from his pocket. It was the New York Times article about the Eastern European attacks against The Painted Bird, and it contained a blurred reproduction of an old photograph of me. My attackers, shouting something about The Painted Bird, began threatening to beat me with lengths of steel pipe wrapped in newspaper, which they produced from inside their coat sleeves. I protested that I was not the author; the man in the photograph, I said, was my cousin for whom I was often mistaken. I added that he had just stepped out but would be returning any minute. As they sat down on the couch to wait, still holding their weapons, I asked the men what they wanted. One of them replied that they had come to punish Kosinski for The Painted Bird, a book that vilified their country and ridiculed their people. Though they lived in the United States, he assured me, they were patriots. Soon the other man joined in, railing against Kosinski, lapsing into the rural dialect I recalled so well. I kept silent, studying their broad peasant faces, their stocky bodies, the poorly fitting raincoats. A generation removed from thatched huts, rank marsh grasses, and ox-drawn ploughs, they were still the peasants I had known. They seemed to have stepped out of the pages of The Painted Bird, and for a moment I felt very possessive about the pair. If indeed they were my characters, it was only natural that they should come to visit me, so I amicably offered them vodka which, after an initial reluctance, they eagerly accepted. As they drank, I began to tidy up the loose items on my bookshelves, then quite casually drew a small revolver from behind the two-volume Dictionary of Americanisms that stood at the end of a shelf. I told the men to drop their weapons, and raise their hands; as soon as they obeyed, I picked up my camera. Revolver in one hand, camera in the other, I quickly took half a dozen photos. These snapshots, I announced, would prove the men’s identity, if ever I decided to press charges for forced entry and attempted assault. They begged me to spare them; after all, they pleaded, they had not harmed me or Kosinski. I pretended to reflect on that, and finally responded that, since their images had been preserved, I had no more reason to detain them in the flesh.

  That was not the only incident in which I felt the repercussions of the Eastern European smear campaign. On several occasions I was accosted outside my apartment house or in my garage. Three or four times strangers recognized me on the street and offered hostile or insulting remarks. At a concert honoring a pianist born in my homeland, a covey of patriotic old ladies attacked me with their umbrellas, while screeching absurdly dated invectives. Even now, ten years after The Painted Bird’s publication, citizens of my former country, where the novel remains banned, still accuse me of treachery, tragically unaware that by consciously deceiving them, the government continues to feed their prejudices, rendering them victims of the same forces from which my protagonist, the boy, so narrowly escaped.

  About a year after the publication of The Painted Bird, P.E.N., an international literary association, contacted me regarding a young poet from my homeland. She had come to America for complicated heart surgery, which, unfortunately, had not accomplished all the doctors had hoped it would. She did not speak English and P.E.N. told me she needed assistance in the first months after the operation. She was still in her early twenties, but had already published several volumes of poetry and was regarded as one of her country’s most promising young writers. I had known and admired her work for some years, and was pleased at the prospect of meeting her.

  During the weeks while she recuperated in New York we wandered through the city. I often photographed her, using Manhattan’s park and skyscrapers as a backdrop. We became close friends and she applied for an extension to her visa, but the consulate refused to renew it. Unwilling to abandon her language and her family permanently, she had no choice but to return home. Later, I received a letter from her, through a third person, in which she warned me that the national writers’ union had learned of our intimacy and was now demanding that she write a short story based on her New York encounter with the author of The Painted Bird. The story would portray me as a man devoid of morals, a pervert who had sworn to denigrate all that her motherland stood for. At first she had refused to write it; she told them that, because she knew no English, she had never read The Painted Bird, nor had she ever discussed politics with me. But her colleagues continued to remind her that the writers’ union had made possible her surgery and was paying for all her post-operative medical attention. They insisted that, as she was a prominent poet, and as she had considerable influence among the young, she was duty-bound to fulfill her patriotic obligation and attack, in print, the man who had betrayed her country.

  Friends sent me the weekly literary magazine in which she had written the required defamatory story. I tried to reach her through our mutual friends to tell her that I understood she had been maneuvered into a position from which there was no escape, but she never responded. Some months later I heard that she had had a fatal heart attack.

  *

  Whether the reviews praised or damned the novel, Western criticism of The Painted Bird always contained an undertone of uneasiness. Most American and British critics objected to my descriptions of the boy’s experiences on the grounds that they dwelt too deeply on cruelty. Many tended to dismiss the author as well as the novel, claiming that I had exploited the horrors of war to satisfy my own peculiar imagination. On the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary observances of the National Book Awards, a respected contemporary American novelist wrote that books like The Painted Bird, with their unrelieved brutality, did not bode well for the future of the English-language novel. Other critics argued that the book was merely a work of personal reminiscence; they insisted that, given the raw materials of war-torn Eastern Europe, anyone could concoct a plot overflowing with brutal drama.

  In point of fact, almost none of those who chose to view the book as a historical novel bothered to refer to actual source materials. Personal accounts of survivors and official War documents were either unknown by or irrelevant to my critics. None seemed to have taken the time to read the easily available testimony, such as that of a nineteen-year-old survivor describing the punishment meted out to an Eastern European village that had sheltered an enemy of the Reich: “I witnessed how the Germans arrived together with the Kalmucks to pacify the village,” she wrote. “It was a terrible scene, one that will live in my memory until I die. After the village was surrounded, they began raping the women, then a command was given to burn it together with all the inhabitants. The excited barbarians took firebrands to the houses and those who ran away were shot at or forced back to the flames. They grabbed small children from their mothers and threw them into the fire. And when the grief-stricken women ran to save their children, they would shoot them first in one leg and then in the other. Only after they had suffered would they kill them. That orgy lasted all day. In the evening, after the Germans left, the villagers slowly crawled back to the village to save its remnants. What we saw was awful: the smoldering timbers and in the approaches to the cottages the remains of the burned. The fields behind the village were covered with the dead; here, a mother with a child in her arms, its brains splashed across her face; there, a ten-year-old with his school book in his hand. All the dead were buried in five mass graves.” Every village of Eastern Europe knew of such events, and hundreds of settlements had suffered similar fates.


  In other documents, a concentration camp commander unhesitatingly admitted that “the rule was to kill children right away as they were too young to work.” Another commandant stated that within forty-seven days he had ready for shipment to Germany almost one hundred thousand pieces of clothing belonging to Jewish children who had been gassed. A diary left by a Jewish gas chamber attendant recorded that “of the hundred Gypsies to die in the camp every day, more than half were children.” And another Jewish attendant described the SS guards nonchalantly feeling the sexual parts of every adolescent girl who passed on her way to the gas chambers.

  Perhaps the best proof that I was not overstating the brutality and cruelty that characterized the war years in Eastern Europe is the fact that some of my old school friends, who had succeeded in obtaining contraband copies of The Painted Bird, wrote that the novel was a pastoral tale compared with the experiences so many of them and their relatives had endured during the war. They blamed me for watering down historical truth and accused me of pandering to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility whose only confrontation with national cataclysm had been the Civil War a century earlier, when bands of abandoned children roamed through the devastated South.

  It was difficult for me to object to this kind of criticism. In 1938, some sixty members of my family attended the last of our annual reunions. Among them were distinguished scholars, philanthropists, physicians, lawyers, and financiers. Of this number, only three persons survived the War. Furthermore my mother and father had lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the repression of minorities during the twenties and thirties. Almost every year in which they had lived was marked by suffering, divided families, the mutilation and death of loved ones, but even they, who had witnessed so much, were unprepared for the savagery unleashed in 1939.

  Throughout World War II, they were in constant danger. Forced almost daily to seek new hiding places, their existence became one of fear, flight, and hunger; dwelling always among strangers, submerging themselves into others’ lives in order to disguise their own, gave rise to an unending sense of uprootedness. My mother later told me that, even when they were physically safe, they were constantly tortured by the possibility that their decision to send me away had been wrong, that I would have been safer with them. There were no words, she said, to describe their anguish as they saw young children being herded into the trains bound for the ovens or the horrendous special camps scattered throughout the country.

  It was therefore very much for their sakes and for people like them that I wanted to write fiction which would reflect, and perhaps exorcise the horrors that they had found so inexpressible.

  *

  After my father’s death, my mother gave me the hundreds of small notebooks that he had kept during the war. Even in flight, she said, never really believing that he would survive, my father somehow managed to make extensive notes on his studies of higher mathematics in a delicate, miniature script. He was primarily a philologist and classicist, but during the war only mathematics offered him relief from quotidian reality. Only by enveloping himself in the realm of pure logic, abstracting himself from the world of letters with its implicit commentary on human affairs, could my father transcend the hideous events that surrounded him daily.

  Once my father was dead, my mother sought in me some reflection of his characteristics and temperament. She was primarily concerned over the fact that, unlike my father, I had chosen to express myself publicly through writing. Throughout his life my father had consistently refused to speak in public, to lecture, to write books or articles, because he believed in the sanctity of privacy. To him the most rewarding life was one passed unnoticed by the world. He was convinced that the creative individual, whose art draws the world to him, pays for the success of his work with his own happiness and that of his loved ones.

  My father’s desire for anonymity was part of a lifelong attempt to construct his own philosophical system to which no one else would have access. I, for whom exclusion and anonymity had been a fact of daily life as a boy, conversely felt compelled to create a world of fiction to which all had access.

  Despite his mistrust of the written word, it was my father who had first unwittingly steered me toward writing in English. After my arrival in the United States, displaying the same patience and precision with which he had kept his notebooks, he began a series of daily letters to me that contained intensively detailed explanations of the finer points of English grammar and idiom. These lessons, typed on airmail paper with a philologist’s concern for accuracy, contained no personal or local news. There was probably little that life had not already taught me, my father claimed, and he had no fresh insights to pass on to his son.

  By that time my father had sustained several serious heart attacks, and his failing sight had reduced his field of vision to an image area about the size of a quarto page. He knew his life was coming to an end, and he must have felt that the only gift he could give me was his own knowledge of the English language, refined and enriched by a lifetime of study.

  Only when I knew I would never see him again did I realize how well he had known me and how much he loved me. He took great pains to formulate every lesson according to my particular cast of mind. The examples of English usage that he selected were always from poets and writers I admired, and consistently dealt with topics and ideas of special interest to me.

  My father died before The Painted Bird was published, never seeing the book to which he had contributed so much. Now, as I reread his letters I realize the extent of my father’s wisdom: he wanted to bequeath to me a voice that could guide me through a new country. This legacy, he must have hoped, would free me to participate fully in the land where I had chosen to make my future.

  *

  The late sixties saw a loosening of social and artistic constraints in the United States, and colleges and schools began to adopt The Painted Bird as supplementary reading in modern literature courses. Students and teachers frequently wrote to me and I was sent copies of term papers and essays dealing with the book. To many of my young readers, its characters and events paralleled people and situations in their own lives; it offered a topography for those who perceived the world as a battle between the bird catchers and the birds. These readers, particularly members of ethnic minorities and those who felt themselves socially handicapped, recognized certain elements of their own condition in the boy’s struggle, and saw The Painted Bird as a reflection of their own struggle for intellectual, emotional, or physical survival. They saw the boy’s hardships in the marshes and forests continued in the ghettos and cities of another continent where color, language, and education marked for life the “outsiders,” the free-spirited wanderers, whom the “insiders,” the powerful majority, feared, ostracized and attacked. Still another group of readers approached the novel expecting it to expand their visions by admitting them into an other-worldly, Bosch-like landscape.

  *

  Today, years removed from the creation of The Painted Bird, I feel uncertain in its presence. The past decade has enabled me to regard the novel with a critic’s detachment; but the controversy aroused by the book and the changes it caused in my own life and the lives of those close to me make me question my initial decision to write it.

  I had not foreseen that the novel would take on a life of its own, that, instead of a literary challenge, it would become a threat to the lives of those close to me. To the rulers of my homeland, the novel, like the bird, had to be driven from the flock; having caught the bird, painted its feathers, and released it, I simply stood by and watched as it wreaked its havoc. Had I foreseen what it would become, I might not have written The Painted Bird. But the book, like the boy, has weathered the assaults. The urge to survive is inherently unfettered. Can the imagination, any more than the boy, be held prisoner?

  Jerzy Kosinski

  New York City, 1976

  1

  In the first weeks of World War II, in the fall of 1939, a six-year-old boy from a large city
in Eastern Europe was sent by his parents, like thousands of other children, to the shelter of a distant village.

  A man traveling eastward agreed for a substantial payment to find temporary foster parents for the child. Having little choice, the parents entrusted the boy to him.

  In sending their child away the parents believed that it was the best means of assuring his survival through the war. Because of the prewar anti-Nazi activities of the child’s father, they themselves had to go into hiding to avoid forced labor in Germany or imprisonment in a concentration camp. They wanted to save the child from these dangers and hoped they would eventually be reunited.

  Events upset their plans, however. In the confusion of war and occupation, with continuous transfers of population, the parents lost contact with the man who had placed their child in the village. They had to face the possibility of never finding their son again.

  In the meantime, the boy’s foster mother died within two months of his arrival, and the child was left alone to wander from one village to another, sometimes sheltered and sometimes chased away.

  The villages in which he was to spend the next four years differed ethnically from the region of his birth. The local peasants, isolated and inbred, were fair-skinned with blond hair and blue or gray eyes. The boy was olive-skinned, dark-haired, and black-eyed. He spoke a language of the educated class, a language barely intelligible to the peasants of the east.

  He was considered a Gypsy or Jewish stray, and harboring Gypsies or Jews, whose place was in ghettos and extermination camps, exposed individuals and communities to the harshest penalties at the hands of the Germans.

 
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