When I first read The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, I was struck not just by the power of the book but by the parallels in the author’s biography at the end of the book. It was learning that there was some element of truth in this savage book about the human condition that put it at the top of my most-recommended list.
So when I heard that in 1991, Kosinski was found naked in his bathtub with a plastic shopping bag wrapped around his head, it seemed like the tragic loss of another prose-gifted Holocaust survivor (Tadeusz Borowski, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Jean Améry, Piotr Rawicz) by their own hand.
Kosinski’s last words, via suicide note, were: “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.”
As I read more about Kosinski, I was surprised to discover that there was much doubt as to the authenticity of Kosinski’s claims about his own life, especially during World War II.
The authorship, the afterword, and the autobiographical claims of The Painted Bird had always been a matter of debate and controversy in his life. That may be why the Afterword I read was later replaced by another Afterword, written by Kosinski himself.
However, parts of that Afterword have also been called into doubt. And now, whether for that reason or another, the current edition of The Painted Bird contains no Afterword whatsoever.
So for preservation’s sake, I’ve collected these three lost Afterwords to The Painted Bird here. They are, in order:
1. The original conclusion to the 1965 book, which was removed after the first edition.
2. A biographical sketch of Kosinski included as an Afterword to the 1972 edition of the book (which also appeared as an afterword in other books of his at various points).
3. The Afterword that Kosinski wrote to the 1976 edition of the book, which contains a supposedly true story that seems pretty far-fetched.
Oddly, none of these Afterwords are in the current English language edition of the book, perhaps because it’s been so difficult for editors and biographers to separate Kosinski’s mythomania from his actual life.
Beyond these, there is actually a FOURTH Afterword. Yes, there is. The first printing of the first edition of The Painted Bird supposedly contained an Afterword that I believe was culled from letters that Kosinski wrote to his editor. If anyone has a copy or a link to a copy of this Afterword, please let me know in the Comments section below.
And there’s yet more: a 29-page document of Notes on The Painted Bird that Kosinski independently published. I will include that document here shortly.
In the meantime, as soon as you finish The Painted Bird, read these postscripts, preserved here for posterity:
THE LOST CONCLUSION TO THE 1965 FIRST EDITION
The story of the boy, the Painted Bird of this book, does not end with his regaining the power of speech. He had become part of the society in which he found himself. It was against the pattern of his acquired habits at first, to cast off his feathers and to adjust to the increasing near-normality of postwar conditions. But he soon became aware that the past few years had almost been ones of good fortune. As the months passed, he realized that the peasants of the villages had not acted as cruelly or as brutally as he had once thought. Their actions had been governed by the traditions and beliefs of generations of forebears, whose fear of strangers – all too often invading armies – was indeed justified. The harshness of life and the tool of the religious and political persecutions throughout the centuries had engendered lasting suspicious, and the exactions of the German occupation had drained off any charity that might have been shown to an outsider. He came to accept that the peasants were hardly more cruel that any others of their kind and condition. Environment had quite naturally dominated behavior.
Had he been left in the city at the beginning of the way, the boy’s fate would have been infinitely more terrible than any of his experiences in the remote countryside. The olive skin, the dark hair, and the black eyes which aroused fear in the rural communities would have been a passport to death in the German-occupied cities. The criteria by which Semitic origins were established were very simple. In any mass roundup in the streets or squares the most casual glance at dark-toned or aquiline features could be enough. A barked order, a gesture with a bayonet, death. No questions.
The boy’s name would have been added to the hundreds of thousands already in the ledgers of death at Auschwitz, Majdanek, or Treblinka, or the pockmark of a bullet on a brick wall would have marked his place of execution. Perhaps, more simply, he would have been one more unmourned corpse on a street of a bomb-blasted city. Entire communities in almost every city of Eastern Europe suffered these kinds of death. They were deaths steeped in horror, and delivered by technicians in mass murder, the trained servants of an ideology of which genocide was a foundation. The random dangers of the forest seemed almost minimal compared to the fearful conspiracies within the cities.
But however terrible the destruction wrought by way might be, however grim the blasted cities and ravaged countryside, the thoughts and energy of people are tied to their hopes of the future, rather than to their losses in the past. No longer alone, the youth, the increasingly involved in the groups around him, slowly lost the feeling of isolation and defensiveness which had previously so dominated him.
This was not to last. Involvement in collective society became more and more forced. Coercive measures trimmed away the vestigial edges of personal freedom. Relentless supervision curtailed every individual action. This placed a double burden on the youth. During the war years his powers of self-dependence had increased enormously, and the maintenance of personal freedom had been the goal to which he had given all his intelligence and energy.
Previously, while living in the forest villages, the boy had been set apart from others by his physical dissimilarity; now, as a young man in collective society, he was set apart by differences of his way of thinking. The experiences of the way years made him unable to conform to the patterns of though and behavior demanded by collective society. Again, he was the outsider, the Painted Bird. Trapped thus in the unyielding meshes of this rigid way of life, the young man realized, paradoxically, that he had been virtually free within the forests and villages, that within the limits of his own determination and skill he could escape from situations that threatened to curtail or end his independence. In his new environment the very means of altering the circumstances were the subject of the strictest controls. The only escape from such pressure and limitation was flight, a journey across an ocean and beyond the confines of a continent where no wings could be spread. In this flight the Painted Bird again became himself.
AFTERWORD TO THE 1972 BANTAM BOOKS EDITION OF THE PAINTED BIRD
Jerzy Kosinski has lived through – and now makes use of – some of the strongest direct experience that this century has had to offer. – TIME
To appreciate the violent, ironic, suspenseful, morally demanding world of Jerzy Kosinki’s novels, one must first acknowledge the random succession of pain and joy, wealth and poverty, persecution and approbation that have made his own life often as eventful as those of his fictional creations.
He was born in Poland. The Holocaust of World War II claimed all but two members of his once numerous family. During the war, sent by his parents to the safety of his foster parent in a distant village, he eventually found himself fleeing alone from place to place, working as a farm hand, gaining his knowledge of nature, animal life – and survival.
At the age of nine, in a traumatic confrontation with a hostile crowd, he lost the power of speech. After the way, reunited with his ailing parents he regained his voice in a skiing accident.
During his studies at the state-controlled Stalinist college and university in Poland he was suspended twice and often threatened with expulsion for his rejection of the official Marxist doctrine. While a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, he became an aspirant (assistant professor) and grantee of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the state’s highest research institution, where he specialized in the study of individual versus collectivity and the sociology of American family life. Attempting to free himself from state-imposed collectivity, he would spend winters as a ski instructor in the Tatra Mountains, and summers as a social counselor at a Baltic sea resort.
Meanwhile, secretly, he plotted his escape. A confident master of bureaucratic judo, Kosinski pitted himself against the State, which had already refused to grant him and his parents permission to emigrate to the West.
In need of official sponsors, and reluctant to implicate his family, his friends and the academy staff, he created four distinguished – but fictitious – members of the Academy of Sciences to act in that capacity. As a member of the Academy’s inner circle and a prize-winning photographer (with many exhibitions to his credit), Kosinski was able to furnish each academician with the appropriate official seals, rubber stamps and stationery. After two years of active correspondence between his fictitious sponsors and the various government agencies, Kosinski obtained an official passport allowing him to study in the United States under the auspices of an equally fictitious American bank “foundation” and to pay for his ticket to New York in local currency.
While waiting for his U.S. visa, expecting to be arrested at any time, Kosinski carried a foil-wrapped egg of cyanide in his pocket. His punishment, had he been caught, would have been many years in prison. “One way or another,” he vowed, “they won’t be able to keep me here against my will.” But his plan worked. In December 1957, following what he still considers the singularly creative act of his life, Kosinski arrived in New York able to – as a result of his sociological studies – read and write English without any difficulty, though only with a rudimentary knowledge of spoken American idiom. “I left behind an inner émigré trapped in spiritual exile,” he says. “America was to give shelter to my real self and I wanted to become it writer-in-residence.” He was twenty-four years of age – his American story was about to begin.
He started his life in the United States as a part-time truck driver, moonlighting as a parking lot attendant, a cinema projectionist, a photographer, and a driver for a black nightclub entrepreneur. “By working in Harlem as a white, uniformed chauffeur I broke a color barrier of the profession,” he recalls. Studying English whenever he could, he perfected it well enough to enroll as a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University and obtain a Ford Foundation fellowship. Two years later, as a student of social psychology, he wrote The Future Is Ours, Comrade, a collection of essays on collective behavior – the first of his two nonfiction studies. An instant bestseller, it was serialized by The Saturday Evening Post and condensed by Reader’s Digest. He was firmly set on a writing career.
After his publishing debut he met Mary Weir, the widow of a steel magnate from Pittsburgh. They dated for two years and were married after publication of No Third Path, Kosinski’s second nonfiction.
During the years with Mary Weir (which ended with her death) Kosinski moved with utmost familiarity in the world of heavy industry, big business and high society. He and Mary traveled a great deal – there were a private plane, a multi-crew boat, and homes and vacation retreats in Pittsburgh, New York, Hobe Sound, Southampton, Paris, London and Florence. He led a life most novelists only invent in the pages of their novels.
“During my marriage, I had often thought that it was Stendhal or F. Scott Fitzgerald, both preoccupied with wealth that they did not have, who deserved to have had my experience,” Kosinski once said. At first, I considered writing a novel about my immediate American experience, the dimension of wealth, power and high society that surrounded me. But during my marriage I was too much a part of that world to extract from it the nucleus of what I felt. As a writer, I perceived fiction as the art of imaginative projection and so, instead, I decided to write my first novel about a homeless boy in war-torn Eastern Europe, an existence I’d once led and also one that was shared by millions of others like me, yet was still foreign to most Americans. This novel, The Painted Bird, was my gift to Mary, and to my new world.”
His following novels – Steps, Being There, The Devil Tree, Cockpit, Blind Date, Passion Play and Pinball, all links in an elaborate fictional cycle, were inspired by particular events of his life and written in Kosinski’s own unmistakable, highly individual style. He would often draw on the experience he had gained when, once a “Don Quixote of the turnpike” he had become a “Captain Ahab of billionaire’s row.” “Few novelists have a personal background like his to draw on,” wrote the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Translated into many languages, his novels have earned Kosinski the status of an international underground culture hero, accompanied by official recognition: for The Painted Bird, the French Best Foreign Book Award; for Steps, the National Book Award. He was a Guggenheim fellow, received the Award in Literature of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as the Brith Sholom Humanitarian Freedom Award, the Polonia Media National Achievement Award and many others.
While Kosinski was constantly on the move, living and writing in various parts of the United States, Europe and Latin America, tragedy persisted in his life. On his way from Paris to the Beverly Hills home of his friend, film director Roman Polanski, and his wife, Sharon Tate, Kosinski’s luggage was unloaded by mistake in New York. Unable to catch the connecting flight to Los Angeles, Kosinski reluctantly stayed overnight in New York. That very night in Polanski’s household the Charles Manson Helter-Skelter gang murdered five people – among them Kosinski’s closest friends, one of whom he financially assisted in leaving Europe and settling in the States.
For the next few years Kosinski taught English Prose and Criticism at Princeton and Yale. He left university life when he was elected president of the American P.E.N., the international association of writers and editors. Reelected, after serving the maximum two terms, a special resolution of the Board of P.E.N. American Center stated that, “…he has shown an imaginative and protective sense of responsibility for writers all over the world. No single member of the American Center can possibly be aware of the full extent of his efforts, but it is clear that they have been extraordinary and that the fruits of what he has achieved will extend far into the future…” Since then, Kosinski has remained active in various American human rights organizations and was honored by the American Civil Liberties Union for his contribution to the First Amendment’s right of free expression. He is proud to have been responsible for freeing from prisons, helping financially, resettling or otherwise giving assistance to a great number of writers, political and religious dissidents and intellectuals all over the world, many of whom openly acknowledged his coming to their rescue.
Called by America “a spokesman for the human capacity to survive in a highlight complex social system,” a politically engaged, socially visible and vocal Kosinski has had his share of public notoriety and headline-making controversies. He was often labeled and criticized by the media as an existential cowboy, a Horatio Alger of the nightmare, a penultimate gamesman, the utterly portable man and a mixture of adventurer and social reformer. In an interview for Psychology Today, Kosinski said: “As I have no habits that require maintaining – I don’t even have a favorite menu – the only way for me to live is to be as close to other people as life allows. Not much else stimulates me – and nothing interests me more.”
Traveling extensively, on an average Kosinski wakes up around 8 A.M. ready for the day. Four more hours of sleep in the afternoon allows him to remain mentally and physically active until the early dawn when he retires. This pattern, he claims, benefits his reading and writing, his photography, and practicing of the sports he has favored for years – downhill skiing and polo, which as an avid all-around horseman, he plays on a team – or one-on-one.
As a screenplay writer, Kosinski adapted for the screen his novel, Being There (with Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas and Jack Warden) for which he won Best Screenplay of the Year Award from both the Writers Guild of America and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA); he was also seen on screen giving a highly praised performance as Grigori Zinoviev in Warren Beatty’s Reds.
A critic once wrote of Kosinski that he “writes his novels so sparsely as though they cost a thousand dollars a word, and a misplaced or misused locution would cost him his life.” He was close to the truth: Kosinski takes almost three years to write a novel, and in manuscript rewrites it a dozen times; later, in subsequent sets of three or four galley and page proofs, he condenses the novel’s text often by one-third. As Kosinski’s publishers often attest, it is such high principled scrupulousness that leads to the remarkable consistency of voice of all his novels. Kosinski said that “writing fiction is the essence of my life – whatever else I do revolves around a constant thought: could I – can I – would I – should I – use it in my next novel? As I have no children, no family, no relatives, no business or estate to speak of, my books are my only spiritual accomplishment.”
“Learning from the best writing of ever era” – wrote The Washington Post – “Kosinski develops his own style and technique … in harmony with his need to express new things about our life and the world we do live in, to express the inexpressible. Giving to himself as well as to the reader the same chance for interpretation, he traces the truth in the deepest corners of our outdoor and indoor lives, of our outer appearance and our inner reality. He moves the borderline of writing to more remote, still invisible and untouchable poles, in cold and in darkness. Doing so, he enlarges the borders of the bearable.”
AFTERWORD TO THE 1976 GROVE PRESS EDITION OF THE PAINTED BIRD
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 during 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.
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 humanitarianism 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 people 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.
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 authors 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.
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?
New York City, 1976