The Painted Bird

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The Painted Bird
First edition cover
AuthorJerzy Kosiński
CountryUnited States
GenreWar novel
PublisherHoughton Mifflin
Publication date
Media typePrint ([hardcover and paperback)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3561.O8 P3 1995
Followed bySteps (1969) 

The Painted Bird is a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński that describes World War II as seen by a boy, considered a "Gypsy or Jewish stray,"[1] wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Central and Eastern Europe. The story was originally described by Kosiński as autobiographical, but upon its publication by Houghton Mifflin he announced that it was a purely fictional account.

Major themes[edit]

The book describes the wandering boy's encounters with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality, and rape, and in other forms of extreme violence exciting lust. The book's title was drawn from an incident in the story. The boy, while in the company of a professional bird catcher, observes how the man took one of his captured birds and painted it several colors. Then he released the bird to fly in search of a flock of its kin, but when the painted bird came upon the flock, they saw it as an intruder and viciously attacked the bird until it fell from the sky.

The plot[edit]

The Painted Bird is told from the perspective of a young boy during World War II. He is accused of being a Jewish or Gypsy stray struggling to live during this chaotic period, although Kosiński's narrator denies being Jewish.[1] The story begins by introducing the war and linking it with the boy. The young boy's parents are hiding from the Germans, and he lives in a village with an elderly woman. When the woman dies, he is left to care for himself. From here, he journeys to another village where local townspeople turn him over to the Germans. He escapes and travels to another village, where he sees Jews and Gypsies headed to concentration camps. It is here that Kosiński adds some social commentary, describing the boy's belief that to have fair hair and blue eyes is to be favored by God. Kosiński sums up a Bosch-like world of harrowing excess where senseless violence and untempered hatred are the norm. The boy travels from village to village in Central and Eastern Europe. Throughout the rest of the book, the boy endures various kinds of violence and cruelty. He wanders alone from one village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, only rarely sheltered and cared for. He becomes an altar boy, and he is exposed to father-daughter incest. After being thrown into a manure pit, he becomes mute. Only at the end of the novel does he become reunited with his parents and regain his speech.

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

In his 1965 editorial review Elie Wiesel wrote that the book was "one of the best... Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity," a review written in The New York Times Book Review and quoted by the book's publisher.[2] Richard Kluger, reviewing it for Harper's Magazine, wrote: "Extraordinary... literally staggering ... one of the most powerful books I have ever read."[3] And Jonathan Yardley, reviewing it for The Miami Herald, wrote: "Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosiński's The Painted Bird. A magnificent work of art, and a celebration of the individual will. No one who reads it will forget it; no one who reads it will be unmoved by it. The Painted Bird enriches our literature and our lives".[3] According to Norman Finkelstein, Cynthia Ozick said "that she 'immediately' recognized Kosiński's authenticity as 'a Jewish survivor and witness to the Holocaust.'"[4] Time magazine included the novel in its "Time 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005",[5] accentuating the alleged atrocities perceived by the protagonist.

Reviewing James Park Sloan's biography of Kosiński for The New York Times Book Review, Louis Begley wrote: "Perhaps the most surprising element of this aspect of Kosiński's mystifications is that he obtained from his mother, who was still alive in Poland – the father had died by the time The Painted Bird was published – a letter corroborating the claim that he had been separated from his family during the war."[6]

Norman Finkelstein, former professor of political science at DePaul University, wrote in The Holocaust Industry: "Long after Kosiński was exposed as a consummate literary hoaxer, Wiesel continued to heap encomiums on his 'remarkable body of work.'"[4] Finkelstein wrote that Kosiński's book "depicts the Polish peasants he lived with as virulently anti-Semitic" even though they were fully aware of his Jewishness and "the dire consequences they themselves faced if caught."[7]

The book's reception in Poland was far from uniform. The Polish literary critic and University of Warsaw professor, Paweł Dudziak, noted that the Painted Bird is a "great, if controversial" piece. He stressed that since the book is surreal – a fictional tale – and does not present, or claim to present – real world events, accusations of anti-Polish sentiment are nothing but a misunderstanding of the book by those who take it too literally.[8] Meanwhile, Polish literary historian Prof. Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska (pl) from Lublin University wrote that The Painted Bird published in 1965, includes long excerpts lifted verbatim from a book published in the Second Polish Republic by the Polish-Jewish ethnographer Henryk Biegeleisen.[9]

Authorship controversy[edit]

According to Eliot Weinberger, contemporary American writer, essayist, editor, and translator, Kosiński was not the author of the book. Weinberger alleged in his collection Karmic Traces that Kosiński had very little fluent knowledge of English at the time of its writing.[10]

M.A. Orthofer addressed Weinberger's assertion by stating: "Kosinski was, in many respects, a fake – possibly near as genuine a one as Weinberger could want. (One aspect of the best fakes is the lingering doubt that, possibly, there is some authenticity behind them – as is the case with Kosinski.) Kosinski famously liked to pretend he was someone he wasn't (as do many of the characters in his books), he occasionally published under a pseudonym, and, apparently, he plagiarized and forged left and right." [11]

Accusation of plagiarism[edit]

In June 1982, a Village Voice article accused Kosiński of plagiarism, claiming much of his work was derivative of Polish sources unfamiliar to English readers. (Being There, for example, bears a strong resemblance to Kariera Nikodema DyzmyThe Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, a 1932 Polish bestseller by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz). The article also claimed that Kosiński's books had actually been ghost-written by his "assistant editors," pointing to striking stylistic differences among Kosiński's novels. The New York poet, publisher and translator George Reavey claimed to have written The Painted Bird. However, in the opinion of Kosiński's American biographer James Sloan, Reavey was simply embittered by his own lack of literary success. Regardless, Reavey's assertions were ignored by the press.[12]

The journalist John Corry, also a controversial author,[13] wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times trying to defend Kosiński, which appeared on the front page of the "Arts and Leisure" section in November 1982.[14] Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that "Kosiński was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign."[13]

Controversy over supposed autobiographical elements[edit]

The Painted Bird was published and marketed as a fictional work although it was generally assumed that it was based on the author's experiences during World War II. Only later did it become clear to most reviewers that Kosiński was neither the boy in the story nor did he share any of the boy's experiences, as revealed in a series of articles in newspapers and books.(2)[15] The depicted events are now widely known to be fictional.

D.G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University, reviewing a biography of Kosiński noted that initially the author had passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own life during the Holocaust: "Long before writing it he regaled friends and dinner parties with macabre tales of a childhood spent in hiding among the Polish peasantry.

Among those who were fascinated was Dorothy de Santillana, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, to whom Kosiński confided that he had a manuscript based on his experiences."[15] According to James Park Sloan, by the time the book was going into publication, Kosiński refrained from making further claims of the book being autobiographical – in a letter to de Santillana and in a subsequent author's note to the book itself.[16][17] Kosiński nonetheless continued to assert that characterizing the novel as autobiographical "may be convenient for classification, but is not easily justified" (the same language he used in his author's note and his pre-publication correspondence with de Santillana) in later interviews during his life.[18]

The Village Voice article presented a different picture of Kosiński's life during the Holocaust – a view which was later supported by Joanna Siedlecka,[19] a Polish biographer, and Sloan. The article revealed that The Painted Bird, assumed by reviewers to be semi-autobiographical, was a work of fiction. The article maintained that, rather than wandering the Polish countryside, Kosiński had spent the war years in hiding with a Polish Catholic family who saved his life from the Germans and that he had never been mistreated in any way. (Incidentally, against the background of savage villagers, a German officer is presented as one of the few positive characters in the novel.)

Terence Blacker, an English publisher of Kosiński's books and an author of children's books and mysteries for adults, wrote in response to the article's accusations in 2002:

The significant point about Jerzy Kosinski was that ... his books ... had a vision and a voice consistent with one another and with the man himself. The problem was perhaps that he was a successful, worldly author who played polo, moved in fashionable circles and even appeared as an actor in Warren Beatty's Reds. He seemed to have had an adventurous and rather kinky sexuality which, to many, made him all the more suspect.[20]

D.G. Myers responded to Blacker's assertions that much of Kosinski's behaviour was the result of "compensating for 'the hollowness at the core of his being'" in his review of Jerzy Kosiński: A Biography by James Park Sloan:

This theory explains much: the reckless driving, the abuse of small dogs, the thirst for fame, the fabrication of personal experience, the secretiveness about how he wrote, the denial of his Jewish identity. 'There was a hollow space at the center of Kosiński that had resulted from denying his past,' Sloan writes, 'and his whole life had become a race to fill in that hollow space before it caused him to implode, collapsing inward upon himself like a burnt-out star.' On this theory, Kosiński emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against...all-out psychosis.[12]

Film adaptation[edit]

The novel was adapted into a feature-length film in 2019, directed and produced by Václav Marhoul.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Elaine Kauvar (1993). Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Indiana University Press. pp. 77. Retrieved 22 June 2015. Gypsy or Jewish stray.
  2. ^ "Everybody's Victim". New York Times. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  3. ^ a b "The Painted Bird [Nook Book]". Barnes and Noble. Retrieved 9 September 2014.
  4. ^ a b Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, Published by Verso, page 56
  5. ^ Time Inc., 2005, "Critics Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo pick the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present"[1] by Lev Grossman
  6. ^ Louis Begley, "True Lies", New York Times" Books section, Friday, August 15, 2008. Originally published: April 21, 1996
  7. ^ Norman G. Finkelstein, The Holocaust Industry, Page 55
  8. ^ Paweł Dudziak (2003), "Jerzy Kosiński" Last accessed on 10 April 2007.
  9. ^ Monika Adamczyk-Grabowska (2001). "The Role of Polish Language and Literature". The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer by Seth L. Wolitz. University of Texas Press. p. 137. ISBN 029279147X. Retrieved December 2, 2012.
  10. ^ Eliot Weinberger, "Genuine Fakes" from his collection Karmic Traces; New Directions, 2000.
  11. ^ M.A.Orthofer (February 2001), "Facts and Fakes." The Complete Review Quarterly.
  12. ^ a b Books in Review: Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography
  13. ^ a b Terry Teachout (January 30, 1994). "Eyeshades and Objectivity". Adventures in the News Trade. By John Corry. Book Review. The New York Times.
  14. ^ John Corry (November 7, 1982), "17 years of ideological attack on a cultural target." The New York Times
  15. ^ a b from Myers' review of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan
  16. ^ James Park Sloan. Jerzy Kosinski. A Biography. Dutton, 1996.
  17. ^ Sue Vice. Holocaust Fiction. Routledge, 2000.
  18. ^ See, e.g., Jerzy Kosinski. The Art of Fiction No. 46. Archived 2007-10-28 at the Wayback Machine Interviewed by Rocco Landesman. Issue 54, Summer 1972.
  19. ^ Czarny ptasior, CIS, 1994; The Ugly Black Bird. Leopolis Press, 2018.
  20. ^ Terence Blacker (June 17, 2002). "Plagiarism? Let's just call it postmodernism". The Independent, (London). Archived from the original on February 14, 2008. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. ^ Holdsworth, Nick (2017-02-04). "Stellan Skarsgard to Star in Holocaust Drama 'The Painted Bird'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 2019-07-29.

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