Jerzy Kosinski's novels lie in the area between the post-war European emotional lucidity and the hip coolness of American mid-generation. His is a non-judgmental, morally permissive fiction, in which action is meant not as salvation, but as making the most of life. In Kosinski's novels, man does not have a character by which he is doomed; he adjusts himself to reality by denying his civilized self and his moral judgment. He forms a personality-free character in a personality-free world.
Kosinski's novels are agitated, ghoulish yarns, told in dispassionate, icy language. They are void of realistic linearity and of emotional temperature. The untitled "chapters" form the unconnected units of narration, space and time are fragmented, little actions follow like digressions, the plotless plot converges rather than continues; words do not burn, as in passionate texts, but are lucid and conniving.
Kosinski's characterless characters have no fixed personalities, yet they do have consistent ego. Like a Pirandellian hero (it was Pirandello who finally got rid of characters, as Joyce did away with recognizably continuous storytelling), the Kosinski protagonist exists from moment to moment. Continually creating himself anew, he never achieves a solidified, hard-core reality of a continuous hero. The story line is the unfinished and unfinishable business of life; thus, it is not accidental that every novel ends inconclusively, with the hero looking out of the window into future spaces.
The narrator/hero appears incognito, blending into other characters, playing in different episodes, enacting the roles of cool manipulators and merciless executioners. His victims are men and women who are thoughtless. Men, totally unmotivated, seek murder. Women, mostly nameless and undefinable, "characterize" themselves by the sexual features of their bodies: glimpses of bare arms, curving thighs, long necks, and sleeveless blouses. They are punished accordingly: caged, abused, raped. Group rape is a frequent device. Protagonists occupy themselves by abruptly slipping into a woman, or literally forcing her open by surprise and blackmail.
Kosinski's first novel (not counting two other works of fiction written under a different name), The Painted Bird, is a parable of a young boy's initiation into evil—he is learning the experience of violence as the all-pervading source of human energy. (pp. 13-14)
The ceaseless monologue in the boy's unaffected language underscores the gruesome, unrelieved instances of human bestiality with the naivete of non-judgmental, heightened realism. In the last section of the book, the boy learns to accept violence as rightful, and desires to identify with the executors of brute force. The Nazi officer with "the smooth, polished skin, bright golden hair and pure mental eyes" and the ballad-singing Red Army comrades become the objects of his admiration…. Having become mentally and physically strengthened by evil, the boy, who had literally lost his speech, regains it on the last page of the book. (pp. 15-16)
While "the other" in The Painted Bird presented the world of a child-victim mutely asking for compassion, Steps, Being There, The Devil Tree, and Cockpit turn to the consistent narrative told by a perpetrator of evil: an addict of violence, a picaro, a sexual outlaw, or a psychopath. In later novels, Kosinski refuses the victimology inherent in The Painted Bird—victims are as evil as criminals. The new "I" narrator is a Nietzschean sinless, aggressive man, acting out of his strangeness (not understood by society) and releasing it in violence. To him, anything is better than stillness. Instead of burying himself alive in neurosis, instead of committing a crime against himself—"a crime" of introspection or self-analysis, Kosinski's protagonist assumes the kingly glory of a criminal. Penetrating the interior from the outside, the hero/narrator merely acts. (Meursault in Camus' Stranger also saw himself only to the extent to which others saw him acting). The irony of this technique is that the "I" narrator, who has been traditionally employed in introspective and speculative texts for the purpose of self-revelation, does not reveal himself to the reader. Thus pointing out the fallacy of introspection, Kosinski demonstrates man's unfathomable, disintegrated nature. (p. 16)
Violence and vengeance, sex and death, power and submission are the essential human ties within the godless and humanless macrocosm of Steps. The neutrally human male is a vagrant, going from place to place, accidentally meeting women, having accidental affairs, and doing away with accidentally chosen victims. He acts like some kind of destructive, fallen angel, if one can conceive of any motivation. Most of the time, however, he is presented as totally impersonal, a thing acting upon a thing. (p. 17)
The acts of coercion and their motions are conveyed through verbs that Kosinski seems to have mastered nearly as well as Ernest Hemingway, but they are employed for very different effects. While Hemingway turned the action of doing ordinary things into a sacred ritual, where even the dinner table or a ship deck became an altar of sacrifice for some unseen gods, the Kosinski protagonist performs the spasms and moans of lovemaking and dying, some kind of dance macabre, a desperate effort of shouting out motion instead of creating emotion. He can never accept death as a necessary pact with nature, an exchange for the gift of life. That is why his deaths are never beautiful: they are not the ordered deaths of the hunted or the hunters, but chilly executions performed by psychopaths for whom only violence can restore their suppleness and vitality. The love acts are, accordingly, not...
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The heroes of [Kosinski's] novels are lonely and anonymous men, outsiders, never with an everyday profession. In Blind Date, the hero was called Levanter; in Passion Play, Fabian. These men have colorless stage names and they themselves are almost indistinguishable from one another. They are usually refugees or escapees from Eastern Europe….
Many authors keep such a distance from their books that it would be improper to look for a link between them and their protagonists. Not so with Kosinski. His novels are personal accusatory statements, and he clearly wants us to draw no line between his own reality and that of his fiction. In fact, it would be hard for him to hide behind the concept of "fiction," for his novels cry out, "This is how the world looks, and I am the sworn witness to the truth of it." (p. 216)
The Painted Bird, which established his name, is different from the later novels in that its hero is the child, not the man; but the child, too, is lonely, an outsider, anonymous. Describing a childhood in German-occupied Poland, the novel builds a platform from which the later novels took off. I don't doubt that it created the stir it did because so many Americans considered it their first real insight into life in Europe during World War II. In the same way, his following novels appeared to give readers here a shockingly direct feel of life under Communism or state socialism, the more convincing since Kosinski never tried to contrast his view with pleasant images from the West…. In the United States as in Eastern Europe, Kosinski's characters move from one grotesque catastrophe to another.
Having lived under a German occupation myself, I have always been intensely uncomfortable with the images in The Painted Bird. In his new introduction, Kosinski writes that its critics felt it was too violent. That, assuredly, was not my objection. On the contrary, in my experience the violence was even more pervasive, but it was also less dramatic, less "American." To give an example, in The Painted Bird the Polish peasants perpetrate acts of the most cruel sexual sadism; it is as if the violence of the Germans conjures up a sexual violence among their victims. But in reality,...
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Jerzy Kosinski takes on some new subject matter—polo, horsemanship and public sex—in his seventh novel, Passion Play, yet these things are not really his new territory. What he presents are the further psychological adventures of the Kosinski hero, who is now as recognizable as the Hemingway hero used to be. But what is genuinely new in Passion Play is that Kosinski's hero grows older; and we are treated to the continuing struggles of the boy from The Painted Bird who became the man from Steps, as he jousts quixotically with (as usual) women and death, loses some of his hair, and enters into a crisis of middle age and lost youth.
There is no nostalgia in this. That's...
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["Passion Play" gives] Kosinski the opportunity to engage in some virtuoso writing about sex and horsemanship, which is sometimes fun to read. He is very good at setting up the big scene, the sporting event, the spectacle…. But such scenes, more often than not, seem to intrude upon the narrative.
We know from the jacket copy and the Cervantes epigraph that we are in the presence of a modern knight-errant, and indeed the idea of a picaresque novel written by someone with Kosinski's skills has possibilities. But even in the opening scenes—Fabian's encounters with a female barber, a bunch of rowdy kids, a procurer of "foster daughters," a derelict—there is a leaden, arbitrary tone from which the...
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Jerzy Kosinski's fictional persona easily made the transition from victim, in The Painted Bird, to victimizer, in Steps. Throughout the four subsequent novels, the cold blooded, impervious Kosinski hero changed little; CIA operative Tarden of Cockpit was as cruel as freelance secret agent Levanter of Blind Date. Passion Play, however, finds the persona somewhat mellowed. In his latest reincarnation, he is an aging polo player named Fabian…. The consuming aggression of past heros has been turned inward, modulated into a neurotic self-absorbtion with the body and sickness….
When not playing polo or pursuing sex, Fabian philosophizes. One example: "In the odyssey of...
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[Passion Play] displays a familiar mixture: a protagonist whose life is a series of disconnected steps leading nowhere, women who are more vagina than mind, existential meditations, and explicitly described physical torture. This time, however, the hero rides higher than usual. (p. 52)
Kosinski's undeniable prowess as a scene-maker has never seemed more evident than in the exciting polo matches and seductions in these pages. Ironically, though, the power plays and love games all remain quite cheerless. The onset of middle age and the discovery of his need for love apart from Eros clearly separate Fabian from Tarden, Levanter, and the other Kosinski ciphers, traumas in search of appropriate...
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