Referring to his earlier life in Communist Poland, Kosinski said that the artist in a police state “has always been trapped in a cage where he can fly as long as he does not touch the wires. The predicament is: how to spread your wings in the cage.” Kosinski’s notion of flying and cages are metaphors he used to describe his career throughout his life. In Poland, he saw himself imprisoned by a “mad best-selling novelist, [Joseph] Stalin”; he escaped that prison with a flight to America.
Writing in America certainly brought freedom to Kosinski; he wrote two best-selling books in an adopted language. Yet there, too, his own writing began to form still another cage. Writing can free; writing can also imprison. He gave up his mother tongue, Polish (and Russian), and wrote in, as he phrased it, his “stepmother tongue,” English. In 1971, he said in an interview that “no prison is as impregnable as language,” suggesting that it is just as difficult to break into the prison of an alien language, English, as it is to escape the confines of one’s mother tongue.
The writing of his books formed still new patterns, new cages, which he then attempted to escape. He said in 1980 of Passion Play that “because I have written the books that I have written—they form my destiny as it has been lived until now. There is a pattern.” The pattern of books forms a cage from which the only escape is new writing. This is Kosinski’s dilemma—his writing creates a protagonist (Tarden, Fabian, Domostroy—their names change in the different books, but they confront similar cages), and this protagonist must battle a new confinement. His novels thus confront not only the paradox of the nature of writing but also the paradox of his career as a novelist whose words have both released him from cages and imprisoned him in new ones.
Kosinski’s protagonists take on an array of enemies—police-state officials (Steps); American corporate greed and mass consumption (The Devil Tree); American conformity and passivity, especially in the form of television watching (Being There and Passion Play); human self-delusion about the predictability of life, whether in the form of a mentality of endless consumerism or socialist state planning (Cockpit, Blind Date); social conformity concerning sexual behavior (Steps, Passion Play); and, lastly, the critics and readers who refuse to see the originality of Kosinski’s achievement as a writer (Passion Play, Pinball, and especially his final, most obsessive book, The Hermit of 69th Street).
All of his novels portray his protagonists besieged, surrounded by enemies. In the best of them, Kosinski manages to create a convincing and plausible threat as well as a compelling, if often grim, solution—everyone is alone, subject to victimization, whether overt and visible, such as German soldiers herding Jews into boxcars as witnessed by the boy in The Painted Bird, or subtle and invisible, such as the tendency in most people to accept a passive role in the design of their own lives. Survival for the individual relies in taking action to resist victimization, even if becoming a victimizer is the only way.
The lessons of his novels are cruel and seem to encourage a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in which the only measure of morality is the triumph of the would-be victim over his victimizer. Yet Kosinski was a survivor of both the Holocaust and a police state; his battles as a writer in America, wings brushing against new wires, he transformed into imaginative narratives that remain disturbing warnings, cruel fables of exploitation and destruction that chart the larger destructions of his time—the Holocaust, the Soviet repression of Eastern Europe, the soulless consumerism and television passivity of contemporary America. Against these forces Kosinski has arranged his books, at least four or five of which remain remarkable testaments of the will of the individual to triumph. Even his carefully planned suicide suggests a refusal to succumb passively to still another design being imposed on him, this time by coronary illness and whatever else he saw gathering to encage him.
The Painted Bird
First published: 1965
Type of work: Novel
The narrator, an unnamed boy, describes his abandonment as a child in wartime Eastern Europe, his torment by various oppressors, and his ultimate survival.
Although Kosinski published two books before The Painted Bird, his achievement as a writer centers around this book. The unnamed boy of The Painted Bird narrates a story that is simultaneously a fable of the Holocaust and an imaginative record of the shaping forces of Kosinski’s early life—separation from his parents, wandering through Polish villages hostile to Jews and gypsies, dodging German soldiers, and eventually being rescued by Soviet soldiers and placed in a postwar orphanage.
Throughout the years of his abandonment, the boy is bereft of every form of protection except his own initiative, cunning, and duplicity. The novel charts the boy’s survival; it also epitomizes Kosinski’s values, which he demonstrated in all of his subsequent novels, namely, that the individual is alone, surrounded by systems of persecution and oppression, whether Nazi soldiers rounding up Jews in Poland for extermination or communist thought police monitoring helpless Polish or Russian citizens. Whatever the source of oppression, The Painted Bird (and Kosinski’s many novels after it) asserts that the duty of the individual is to seize the necessary power that would turn would-be persecutors into victims. Unless victimization is actively resisted, the individual will succumb and become a victim, and the surest way to avoid victimization is to become an oppressor.
The boy is beaten by Polish peasants, pushed into an ice-covered pond by cruel boys, forced to hang from a beam over a vicious dog, and tossed into an open cesspool and left to drown. His torment renders him a mute; he survives through craft, deception, and the ability to assume the role of victimizer. The boy pulls a murderous peasant into a pit full of starving rats, sets fire to a barn, and sabotages a train full of peasants.
Taught by Gavrila to read and write, the boy...
(The entire section is 2627 words.)