The Theme of Survival

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2149

In The Painted Bird Jerzy Kosinski creates a dominant metaphor that reflects an unnamed young boy's harrowing experiences in an Eastern European country during World War II. Norman Lavers in an article on Jerzy Kosinski notes that when the boy's parents send him to live in a remote village while they go into hiding, his dark hair, eyes, and complexion make him "immediately, visibly different, arousing suspicion and fear. The lesson of being the odd man out, of the danger of being noticeable, is brought home to him over and over again." Kosinski symbolizes this lesson in one of the novel's episodes when the boy observes a cruel ritual practiced by Lekh, one of the villagers who takes him in. Lekh chooses the strongest bird from those that he raises and paints it with bright colors. When he sees a flock of birds in the sky, he releases his painted bird, which soars "happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds." When the bird joins the flock, the other birds, "dazzled by its brilliant colors," kill it.

Like the painted bird, the boy is considered unusual when he is thrown in with his fellow human beings, and so they harass and often attack him. Yet, unlike the bird, the boy learns to survive his harsh world through his remarkable ability to adapt to his surroundings.

Cameron Northouse, in his article on Kosinski for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, argues that the boy becomes a survivor "who has been altered by his experience, who has learned that to merely react to the world is to be at its mercy." The boy's ability to adapt to his environment by altering his personal philosophies becomes the key to his survival.

Reflecting on the boy's survival skills in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, Norman Lavers concludes that even while confronted with continuous experiences of "unremitting violence and deprivation," the boy's instinct for survival becomes paramount. Lavers notes that the boy never becomes consumed with self-pity; instead he accepts his position in his world and "continually tries to learn its rules, its central principles, so that he can function effectively in it."

The first adaptation the boy makes is his acceptance of his otherness. Olga the Wise One, a kind, elderly woman who takes him in and teaches him crucial survival skills, informs him that an evil spirit possesses him. He soon notes that other villagers also believe this to be true, and as a result, they ostracize and torment him. Eventually, the boy comes to accept his uniqueness, acknowledging that he must be "possessed by an evil spirit," that crouched in him "like a mole in a deep burrow."

The boy quickly adapts to his new vision of himself and uses it to his advantage. He reasons that since an evil spirit possesses him, and others could recognize this fact by looking into his "bewitched black eyes," he could gain a certain power over them. He could accomplish this by casting spells over them through his stare. Adopting another valuable survival skill, he employs this perceived power whenever necessary. Sometimes, in an effort to cast spells on those who try to harm him, he shouts and glares at them. His belief in his special powers enables him to cope with the beatings he receives from Garbos, a cruel farmer with whom he comes to live for a time. He repeatedly glares at Garbos, who also believes in the boy's "evil powers" and so will not beat him to the point of death.

When he periodically escapes Garbos' beatings at a local Catholic church where he is training to be an altar boy, he begins to adopt some Catholic doctrine. Because he had tried to think of various ways to cast a spell on Garbos, "but nothing seemed feasible," he turns to what he considers to be the power of prayer. The priest teaches him that those who say more prayers "earn more days of indulgence, and this was also supposed to have an immediate influence on their lives." After this discovery, he insists that he has discovered the pattern of life. He states, "I understood why some people were strong and others weak, some free and others enslaved, some rich and others poor." As a result, he stops blaming others and takes responsibility for his misfortunes. His refusal to wallow in self-pity and his determination to adapt to his world gives him the strength to survive his harrowing experiences.

After he begins his daily prayer ritual, he concludes, "until now I had been a small humble bug that anyone might squash. From now on the humble bug would become an unapproachable bull." His belief that his prayers will earn him enough "days of indulgence" and so a deliverance from Garbos' brutality helps him withstand beatings and torture sessions where he is forced to hang from his arms for hours. Lavers notes that while the boy leaves himself open to new philosophies, he is "always an empiricist, always testing his theories against the facts of his world." When he discovers that the priest has become ill, he becomes confused, admitting, "I was astonished. The priest must have accumulated an extraordinary number of days of indulgence during his pious life, and yet here he was lying sick like anybody else." He leaves himself open to new interpretations of his experience in an effort to understand and thus cope with his world.

When he eventually escapes from Garbos' cruelty, he moves to a new farm where he gains a different type of education. Ewka, the nineteen-year-old farmer's daughter, teaches him how to sexually pleasure her. He finds comfort in his physical relationship with her. Yet when he sees her coupling with a goat, his vision of the world again makes a radical transformation. At first, he admits, "something collapsed inside me. My thoughts fell apart and shattered into broken fragments like a smashed jug."

He then makes a radical change in his perception of the nature of good and evil. Reflecting on what he has just observed, he determines that there are some, like Ewka, who are "in league with the Devil" and begins to think about the power of evil in relation to his own survival. He decides that by "signing a pact with the Devil," and committing oneself to inflict "harm, misery, injury, and bitterness" on those he encounters, he could become stronger. Responding to others with "love, friendship, and compassion" would only weaken and subject him to more suffering. He concludes that those committed to "hatred, greed, revenge, or torture to obtain some objective" would receive help from the Devil.

Focusing on his own situation, he admits, "I felt annoyed with myself for not having understood sooner the real rules of this world. The Evil Ones surely picked only those who had already displayed a sufficient supply of inner hatred and maliciousness." In his newfound philosophy, the worse the act, the better the reward. Thus, he notes, "simply beating up an innocent man was worth less than inciting him to hate others. But hatreds of large groups of people must have been the most valuable of all." Reflecting on the suffering he has endured because of his "otherness," he notes, "I could barely imagine the prize earned by the person who managed to inculcate in all blond, blue-eyed people a long-lasting hatred of dark ones." He determines that because the Germans are "endowed with all their splendid abilities and talents" and are "invincible," "every German must have sold his soul to the Devil at birth. This was the source of their power and strength."

This newfound philosophy is reinforced when the villagers throw him into a manure pit after he drops the missal during an important church service. This experience causes him to lose his speech, and soon his thoughts turn toward revenge. He notes that he has often dreamed of punishing those who have made him suffer. Admitting that he has "already been recruited by the powers of Evil and had made a pact with them," he concludes that he now needs "their assistance for spreading evil." His commitment to revenge makes him feel "stronger and more confident," and so he declares, "the time of passivity was over; the belief in good, the power of prayer, altars, priests, and God had deprived me of my speech." He dreams of being as powerful as the Germans, which would enable him "to destroy others in the subtlest ways."

These ruminations fill him with a new sense of confidence and strength, and as a result, he admits, "I did not feel pain any more." As he wanders through the forest he hears whisperings and moans swirling around him in the darkness and decides, "the Evil Ones were interested in me at last. He concludes that they had made him suffer in the past, only "to train [him] in hatred."

The boy's powerful desire to survive ebbs, however, during his experience with the Kalmuks, who invade the village toward the end of the war and torture, rape, and murder the inhabitants. Initially, the boy identifies with the warriors, noting that they are as darkly complexioned as he is. Yet when he witnesses their unremitting brutality, he withdrawals into himself, "overwhelmed by dread and disgust." At this point, he again alters his worldview to cope with the dangers of his new surroundings. He now concludes that his extraordinary suffering results from his ethnicity. Since his hair and eyes look similar to those of the Kalmuks, he determines, "Evidently I belonged with them in another world. There could be no mercy for such as me."

Lavers notes that this is the boy's "very lowest moment" spiritually as well as physically because a Kalmuk had just severely injured his chest. When Russian soldiers capture the Kalmuks and hang them from trees, the boy finds death in the air and almost gives into it, but his will to live becomes stronger than his need for peace.

After the boy is rescued by the Russian soldiers, and enjoys, for a time, a safe, "calm and well-ordered" life, he readopts his belief in the power of revenge. Through his experiences, he has learned about the capacity for violence and cruelty in others. In his search for some measure of control over his life in this atmosphere, he also discovers his own facility for cruelty. Paul R. Lilly, Jr., in his article for The Literary Review, notes that like most of Kosinski's characters, the boy's natural impulse is "to transform [himself] from victim to oppressor," for at this point, there are no other options. He must seize the power of the oppressor and consider everyone and everything an enemy that must be controlled or destroyed. By the end of the novel, the boy has transformed himself into the oppressor as evidenced when he breaks his stepbrother's arm, probably in an effort to assert a position of dominance in the family.

The novel closes with an ambiguous portrait of the boy's emotional state. After he reunites with his parents, he finds it difficult to adapt to his new life because he feels that his parents inhibit his freedom. Lavers notes that he finds their restrictions "suffocating and unbearable." As a result he goes out only at night, when he can find other lost souls. Lavers argues, "He is coming now to what he believes is his final philosophical stance, his ultimate picture of the world." The boy now decides, "Every one of us stood alone, and the sooner a man realized that all Gavrilas, Mitkas, and Silent Ones were expendable, the better for him." Yet he cannot sustain this dark pessimism. At the end of the novel, as he recuperates from a skiing accident and answers a ringing phone, he has an overwhelming desire to communicate to the person who has called him. He admits, "Somewhere at the other end of the wire there was someone, perhaps a man like myself, who wanted to talk with me." As a result he has "an overpowering desire to speak" and eventually he does. His overwhelming need to survive prompts him to try to reestablish a connection with others.

In an interview with Ben Brown in the Detroit News, Kosinski claims,

The whole didactic point of my novels is how you redeem yourself if you are pressed or threatened by the chances of daily life, how you see yourself as a romantic character when you are grotesque, a failure.

In The Painted Bird, Kosinski illustrates the strength of the human spirit and its overwhelming will to survive the harsh nature of reality.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on The Painted Bird, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors.

The Most Considerate of Men

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2626

When I heard that Jerzy Kosinski had killed himself, I was furious and then I cried, a not uncommon reaction, I suspect, among so many people who knew him. "I'm about to put myself to sleep," he said in a note to Kiki, his wife, and then lowered himself into a bathtub half-filled with water, tied a plastic shopping bag around his head, and died. What a whole gallery of twentieth-century thugs had been unable to do to Jerzy, Jerzy had done to himself. The author of The Painted Bird, Steps, Being There, and eight other books, was dead at 57. "Jerzy," I thought, "how could you?"

Well, he could because he believed it was the correct thing to do. Jerzy was his own master. His heart condition had worsened and, as he said in the note to Kiki, he feared he might one day be a burden. He was the most considerate of men, and the possibility of becoming pitiable must have appalled him. Besides, his writing had not been going well, and if his health got worse he would be unable to write at all. That would have been the same as death. Words meant more to Jerzy, perhaps, than to any other writer.

His life and his art testified to that. He was concerned with language and the mystical property of words, and what words and language could do. He once described Poland, which he fled in 1957, as a cage of words that had been placed around him by the world's most malevolent author. "I saw myself imprisoned in a large house of political fiction," he said, "persecuted by a mad bestselling novelist, Stalin, and a band of his vicious editors from the Kremlin, and, quite logically, I saw myself as a protagonist of his fiction."

Indeed he did, and he saw himself as the protagonist of his own fiction, too, although he could never quite come out and say it. Critics said his works were autobiographical; he said they were novels. Declare the works pure fiction, however, and he would insist everything in them was true. No other novelist of his time so joined his life and art, and no other novelist had his life so confused with his art. That was the Kosinski conundrum. His inner landscape was no secret—you had only to read the books to know that—but the outside topography was mysterious.

Who was this exotic, hawk-faced man who aroused so much speculation? To begin with, he was witty and charming, and utterly bereft of malice. He was also a pain in the ass. He would badger friends about what he thought were matters of high importance, and keep badgering until he wore them out. He was fastidious, punctilious, and elegant. On the other hand, he made fun of himself. He mimicked his accent, ridiculed his physique, and laughed at his own eccentricities. He was a trickster, joker, and con-man who was incapable of telling a lie. He was a casualty, mishap, and survivor who always feared he might hurt someone himself. He was, in short, one of the best men I knew.

I first met him in the late 1960s, just after he had won the National Book Award for Steps. Late at night he would nurse a glass of wine at a literary bar on Second Avenue and talk, firing words in bursts and ricocheting sentences and whole paragraphs off the walls and floor. Then he would fall silent and suddenly be out the door, taking his puns, epigrams, and dark humor with him. The other drinkers would speculate about where he had gone, though mostly, I suspect, he just went home to bed. Once he and Kiki invited me and my wife to dinner at their apartment on West 57th Street. After dinner, he told us he had a secret hiding place. If we left him alone for thirty seconds and then came back, he said, we would not be able to find him.

My wife and I stepped into the hallway, walked as far as the elevator, and then came back to the apartment. We looked under the bed and in the closets; we examined the furniture, windows, and doors. Kosinski had vanished. I remember being uncomfortable; for some reason I felt embarrassed. Finally, a cupboard door popped open and Jerzy unfolded from a shelf, where he had been lying behind some books. No matter where he lived, he said, he always had a hiding place. I had never met a Holocaust survivor before.

It was unpleasant, however, to think of that; in those days it was better to think of Jerzy as the subject of outrageous, appalling, but somehow amusing stories. Everyone knew them. Kosinski had missed a connecting flight to Los Angeles, where he was to stay at the home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, because the airline had misplaced his luggage. That night, the Charles Manson gang invaded the household and butchered Miss Tate and her friends. The next day, Kosinski called the airline to complain again about the luggage. There were many stories about Jerzy Kosinski. You believed some, dismissed others, and treated a few as sly jokes. There were two running jokes in particular: Kosinski worked for the CIA and ghostwriters wrote his books.

That the jokes might have political purpose never occurred to me; that sleazy bureaucrats and Communist party hacks wanted to discredit a writer was unthinkable. I could not imagine that commissars had set slanders adrift like noxious fumes in their own stale air and then waited for cultural winds to disperse them. Kosinski's life was unimaginable enough already.

At age six, he had been separated from his parents and sent to live in the countryside when Germany invaded Poland. Everything afterwards, I think, always came back to that. His life as a child on the run from the Nazis became the basis for The Painted Bird, his first and most enduring novel. The boy in the novel is brutalized by villagers, but that is not its point. When Elie Wiesel reviewed The Painted Bird in the New York Times, he noted the "terrifying elements" in the "metamorphosis of the boy's mind." The boy discovered evil and learned the world was a dangerous place. He learned "every one of us stood alone." Wiesel was sensitive to that, but mistaken when he thought the narrator, the boy, was a Christian. "And their victim was neither Jew nor Gypsy," he wrote, "but a forlorn Christian child of good Christian parents." Of course, Jerzy Kosin-ski was Jewish.

Wiesel had read something that wasn't there; others would do that, too. Jerzy had not characterized the boy in The Painted Bird, other than saying the villagers thought he might be a Gypsy. Indeed, Jerzy had not even identified the boy as Polish. There was an artistic rationale for this— Jerzy once wrote a booklet explaining it—but a simpler one will do. Jerzy purposely had made his own outline obscure; if he could exist in the shadows, so to speak, it would be harder to track him down. The villagers, wherever they might turn up, would not be able to find him.

In Poland, Jerzy had taught sociology at the Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. In New York in 1958, he received a grant to do post-graduate work at Columbia. In 1960 he published The Future Is Ours, Comrade, and two years later No Third Path, both under the pseudonym Joseph Novak. They were nonfiction works about life in the Soviet Union—Jerzy had gone to school in Moscow in the early 1950s—but they suggested the novels later: the nearly anonymous Novak reported what he saw, expressing no viewpoint overtly. "The descriptions contained in this book do not propose moral codes and involve no judgments," Jerzy wrote in an epilogue to No Third Path. "They are sketches."

That wasn't true; Jerzy was just being slippery. The sketches showed a Communist society made up of oppressed and oppressor, and plainly Jerzy had made judgments. Years later, when the left got serious about discrediting him, it said the CIA had sponsored the publication of Jerzy's Novak books. It produced no evidence, of course, and in truth the spooks had had nothing to do with them, although it might have been nice if they had. The Novak books had literary merit, and they presented a more telling picture of the moral bankruptcy of Soviet life than the clunky memoirs Langley then seemed to favor.

The Painted Bird was published in 1965; Steps came three years later. "Celine and Kafka stand behind this accomplished art," the Times review said then. It was extraordinary, really. A man who escaped Hitler and Stalin had published four books in ten years in a language he had not grown up speaking. The Times of London compared him to Conrad, and certainly that was apt. His searches for just the right English word had been prodigious. In the beginning, he would even call telephone operators late at night and try out words on them: "Excuse me, miss, but I am a foreigner, and I do not know what this means." Later The Painted Bird went through nine full drafts; Jerzy made sixteen or seventeen copies of each draft and passed them on to friends. "I chose some people whose language was not English, and some who were Americans," he once explained. "I asked them to make a little cross next to anything that didn't sound right. If enough people marked a sentence, I knew something was wrong with it."

An eccentric technique, perhaps, and one not likely to be taught at, say, the University of Iowa's celebrated writing classes or the earnest poetry hutches of the New School; but Jerzy, as I said, was his own master, and for him it worked wonderfully well. The Painted Bird will survive after most other books are forgotten. Surely, it was the making of Jerzy Kosinski, just as it was his undoing. That, however, came later, and for years Jerzy thrived. In 1970 he received the American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature. In 1973, he was elected president of the American chapter of PEN, the international association of poets, playwrights, editors, essayists, and novelists. The next year he was re-elected, serving the maximum time allowed.

He was an incongruous choice. PEN was approximately as politically diverse as the Soviet Writers Union, an organization with which it eerily shared some positions. (A few years after Jerzy left office, World PEN, with its American chapter applauding, sanctimoniously expelled the Chilean chapter, while allowing chapters from all Communist and Third World countries to remain.) Jerzy put PEN to actually doing something useful. He led it in a campaign to free writers imprisoned by tyrants of both the left and right. The key word here is "both." Before Jerzy, PEN had recognized only one kind of tyrant. When he left office, PEN's board of directors passed a resolution that said he had "shown an imaginative and protective sense of responsibility for writers all over the world," and that the "fruits of what he has achieved will extend far into the future."

I did not see Jerzy often in the years after that, although I did hear things about him. Whatever the fruits of his achievement at PEN, he was growing suspect in literary circles. He was too raffish, too prominent, and too likely to turn up as a guest on David Letterman. Warren Beatty had cast him in the movie Reds. Jerzy seemed to know everyone important. He referred to Henry Kissinger as Henry, an indictable offense in itself. His real sin, though, was that he was still his own man in a world where everyone else was the same.

There was, for example, the incident with Jack Abbott. Abbott, an imprisoned murderer, had corresponded with prominent writers, passionately pressing them to adopt his Marxist-Leninist worldview. Norman Mailer and others detected a rare literary talent in Abbott's letters and campaigned to have him released. Kosinski declined to join the campaign; he called Abbott a "misguided leftist." Mailer and his friends persisted, however, and Abbott won his freedom, a beneficence he repaid by immediately stabbing to death a young actor in the East Village. In the aftermath, Kosinski spoke of "criminal chic," and said the writers who supported Abbott had been drawn by his ideas and not by his talent. A few months later, the Nation magazine sponsored a conference of something called the American Writers Congress. It was a wholly anti-American gathering—financed by the usual foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts—and Jerzy said it reminded him of Eastern Europe. Eventually, it was only a matter of who would mug Jerzy first.

As it turned out, it was the Village Voice. It ran a long story that said Jerzy had hired editors and ghostwriters to write his books, and that he was connected to the CIA. This, it said, was his "dirty little secret." The story was trash, full of evidence that purported to prove one thing, but which, read carefully, proved nothing at all. It was nasty, venomous, and sly, a paradigm of the distasteful, and had no purpose other than to discredit Jerzy and take his identity away. The terrible thing was that it was successful. The story in the cheesy little New York weekly was picked up all over the world. The Times of London even put its account on page one. Italian, French, and West German publications repeated the accusations, and an imaginative few made up some of their own. (Les Nouvelles Lit-téraires in Paris asked why Kosinski carried a gun, had dozens of false identities, and kept tear gas bombs in his car.) The story turned up in daily papers in Turkey and Japan and Malaysia. And in Poland, where each innuendo and outright fabrication about Jerzy had come from in the first place, the Communist press quoted European and American articles about the story in the Village Voice as proof of what the government had been saying all along: that Jerzy Kosinski was an inveterate liar.

It was The Painted Bird. As I said, everything in Jerzy's life always came back to that. Even the headline in the Voice—"Jerzy Kosinski's Tainted Words"—had been a reminder. (How nasty that was; Jerzy had bled over those words.) When Jerzy published The Painted Bird years before, Warsaw had set out to hurt him. He was not an ordinary anti-Communist émigré Pole; he was a celebrated anti-Communist Pole, and so he had to be discredited. The Painted Bird, the propagandists said, slandered Poland. In fact, it did not, but since the novel was banned, who in Poland would know? The campaign went on for years: Jerzy used ghostwriters; he worked for the CIA; he plagiarized other novels; he was part of a Zionist conspiracy; nothing he said could be trusted. It was all fantastic, but in its way it worked quite well. Over time Warsaw's emissions spread like swamp gas and the Voice missed only the Zionist conspiracy.

After the Voice published its story, I told my editors at the New York Times I wanted to investigate its charges against Jerzy. "Fine," they said, and I wrote a long article, carefully documented, tracing Warsaw's involvement. When it was published, however, it had an unexpected effect. Other publications attacked the Times. The best the other publications could say about Jerzy was that the charges against him were not proved. He deserved better, but he was not really surprised because he knew how treacherous words could be. It meant the villagers had finally caught him.

Source: John Corry, "The Most Considerate of Men," in American Spectator, Vol. 24, No. 7, July 1991, pp. 17-18.

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Critical Overview