Notes of the Author on the Painted Bird

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Essay by Jerzy Kosinski, 1965

Jerzy Kosinski's first novel, The Painted Bird, aroused controversy even before it saw print. The publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was concerned about whether the book should be sold as an autobiography, with claims to factual accuracy, or as a work of fiction. If the first, there would be legal issues should any people portrayed in the book sue for slander. Kosinski was also concerned about his brutal portrayal of the peasantry of his (unspecified) native Poland. That he had been exiled from that country since 1957 and had become an American citizen through marriage only added to his sensitivity about The Painted Bird. The book was published as fiction, and even though not translated into Polish, it was reviewed by Polish writers who attacked Kosinski for his literary and personal shortcomings. "Notes of the Author on The Painted Bird " is Kosinski's thoughtful response to his critics, and, as such, it embodies a useful commentary on the book and his intentions in writing it.

The essay was written in the months following the spirited reception of The Painted Bird and published by Kosinski himself in late 1965. (The reader can find the essay in Passing By: Selected Essays, 1962-1991 , a posthumous collection edited by Kosinski's widow.) It begins in a formal, allusive, and abstract manner, invoking within its first few pages Marcel Proust, Susanne K. Langer, and Paul Valéry, while speaking about the artist's necessary "alienation from the specific experience" about which he writes. Reluctant at first to call The Painted Bird fiction, Kosinski states that the " remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings " and that " there is no art which is reality … "(his italics). Kosinski then moves to a more explicit discussion of The Painted Bird 's fictionality by admitting that the book "could be the author's vision of himself as a child, a vision, not an examination, or a revisitation of childhood … The locale and the setting are likewise metaphorical." Even the landscape belongs to no specific national group but rather lies on borders "continually torn by strife." The peasants in the area of The Painted Bird are torn by "suspicion and fear, watching plague and waiting death," paying "grudged devotion to an unforgiving God." To them the child represents a mythic figure who "comes into their isolated world at the same time as the Germans, a very real threat of annihilation, arrive." The peasants treat him and one another with a cruelty that is "extremely defensive, elemental, sanctioned by traditions, by faith and superstition, by centuries of poverty, exploitation, disease, and by the ceaseless depredations of stronger neighbors." But they are survivors, and so is the boy.

Kosinski presents the boy as a mythic hero by invoking Jungian archetypes. The Painted Bird , he says, "can be considered as fairy tales experienced by the child, rather than told to him …" It is "undoubtedly remarkable" that such a boy could survive the war alone, but in the context of fairy-tale conventions, the boy must be seen as a heroic representative of us all. Children, Kosinski claims, are better equipped to survive adversity than adults because of their comparative simplicity: "Events to the child are immediate: discoveries are one-dimensional. This kills, that maims, this one cuffs, that one caresses. But to the adult the vision of these memories is multidimensional." In the fairy-tale narrative the young hero is put through test after test, "yet he must survive."

Kosinski paradoxically suggests that we must see the boy as a negative hero because of the purity of his hatred for all that has happened in the world. This hatred is more self-motivated and generated because the hatred of the peasants is so deeply rooted in their history and their traditions. It is also important, Kosinski notes, that the peasants did not originate the mass extermination program. This was developed by the "civilized" peoples in "the centers of European culture" who had experienced the Enlightenment, Bach, and Goethe. To a great extent, then, the author presents the peasants as also being victims of the war.

Authors do not get to have the last word on their books, much as Kosinski might have wished, because they frequently justify what they think they have done as much as they explain it. Such criticism can certainly be leveled at "Notes of the Author on The Painted Bird, " but once beyond the essay's labored opening, the reader has much to learn from Kosinski's remarks. Not only does he offer a sophisticated justification of his own work, but he also situates himself as a philosophical novelist in the tradition of Camus and Sartre as well as a self-conscious student of literary traditions.

—Michael Hoffman