The Painted Bird is a controversial 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński which describes the world as seen by a young boy, "considered a Gypsy or Jewish stray," who wanders about small towns scattered around Central or Eastern Europe (presumably Poland) during World War II.
The title is drawn from an analogy to human life, described within the book. The boy finds himself in the company of a professional bird catcher. When the man is particularly upset or bored, he takes one of his captured birds and paints it several colors. Then he watches the bird fly through the air in search of a flock of its kin. When it comes upon them, they see it as an intruder and tear at the bird until it dies, falling from the sky.
Soon after the book was published in Poland (where it was banned for 23 years), the people with whom the Kosiński family lived during the war became highly indignant about how they were depicted. Kosinski and his parents “had lived through the years of Nazi occupation not only in safety, but in comfort” protected by them. Jerzy was baptized and received Holy Communion; he served as an altar boy. His parents even employed a maid. According to Phillip Routh, writing in Arts & Opinion magazine, “The Poles branded Jerzy Kosinski a Holocaust profiteer because the novel, which drew critical comparison with The Diary of Anne Frank, was immediately granted the status of a chronicle of the Holocaust.” They “called the novel pornographic, contending that it excites a form of lust.”
"Perhaps the most surprising element of this aspect of Kosinski'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.
Norman Finkelstein, professor of political science at DePaul University, wrote in The Holocaust Industry: "Long after Kosinski was exposed as a consummate literary hoaxer, Wiesel continued to heap encomiums on his "remarkable body of work." Finkelstein wrote that Kosinski'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.”
The reception of the book in Poland was far from uniform nevertheless. Polish literary critic and University of Warsaw professor, Paweł Dudziak, noted that the Painted Bird is a great, if controversial piece. He stresses that since the book is surreal - a fictional tale - and does not present, nor claims to present real world events - accusation of anti-Polish sentiment are nothing but misunderstanding of the book by those who take it too literally.
M.A.Orthofer addressed Weinberger's assertion by saying: "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."
The Village Voice article presented a different picture of Kosiński's life during the Holocaust – a view which was later supported by a Polish biographer, Joanna Siedlecka, 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 and had never been appreciably mistreated.
In a Publishers Weekly article, Les Pockell, the editor of Passion Play and The Devil Tree, said that the charges were "totally ludicrous. It's clear no one in the article is asserting that he or she wrote the book." Because Kosiński was "obsessive" about his writing, Pockell continued, "he retained people to copy edit." Pockell told the Los Angeles Times Calendar that he felt the article's authors "played upon the ignorance of the general public about the conventions of publishing," and "to turn Kosinski's working methods into something sinister makes one wonder about their motives".
Terence Blacker, an English publisher (who published Kosiński's books) and author of children's books and mysteries for adults, wrote in response to the article's accusations in his article published in The Independent 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. All in all, he was a perfect candidate for the snarling pack of literary hangers-on to turn on. There is something about a storyteller becoming rich and having a reasonably full private life that has a powerful potential to irritate so that, when things go wrong, it causes a very special kind of joy."
D. G. Myers responded to Blacker's type assertions in his review of Jerzy Kosinski: 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, Kosinski emerges as a classic borderline personality, frantically defending himself against… all-out psychosis.
Journalist John Corry wrote a 6,000-word feature article in The New York Times in November 1982, responding and defending Kosiński, which appeared on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Among other things, Corry alleged that reports claiming that "Kosinski [sic] was a plagiarist in the pay of the C.I.A. were the product of a Polish Communist disinformation campaign.
Although some readers assumed it was based on the author's experiences during World War II, the book was published and marketed as "fiction." Most of the events depicted are now widely considered to be fictional. It later became clear 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)
D. G. Myers, Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University, reviewing a biography of Kosinski, claimed that Kosiński had passed off The Painted Bird as the true story of his own experience 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.” However, according to biographer James Park Sloan, Kosinski had initially indicated to de Santillana that he had a manuscript based on his wartime experiences, although by the time the book was going into publication, he had backed off of claims of the book being autobiographical, in a letter to de Santillana and in a subsequent author's note to the book itself. Kosinski 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.
In his final novel, The Hermit of 69th Street (1988), has been described as "an elaborate scheme to revenge himself against what he calls 'docu-slander.'"