Chapter 3

Autobiographical fiction

Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

The entry in the 1991 bibliography The Jewish Holocaust is typical of a scandal-free view of Kosinski's 1965 novel:

One of the most widely read, well received, and influential novels yet published on the Holocaust…. Partly based on events in Kosinski's own life, the novel is one of the best works of literature on the Holocaust experience. 1

This passage simplifies many issues to imply that The Painted Bird has been uniformly 'well received', and begs many questions to describe the novel as 'partly based' on Kosinski's experiences, or even as a novel 'on the Holocaust'. The matter of (auto)biography in this case has been the source of not one but two scandals of the sort we have become familiar with.

The debates surrounding The Painted Bird are of three kinds: first, concerning literary issues; second, the Village Voice scandal of 1982 about Kosinski's literary practice; third, the scandal of 1994 about what exactly happened to the Kosinski family in Poland during the war. It is true that as a Holocaust survivor Kosinski is in a rather different category from Amis and Thomas, but this does not mean his biography has been free from scrutiny. In particular, critics have been exercised by the question of whether the fate of the boy in The Painted Bird really matched Kosinski's experience during the Holocaust years, as he often claimed. In my view, the most fruitful way to approach The Painted Bird is as a literary text; the quest for biographical accuracy is necessarily doomed to failure, and the novel is much better seen as an autobiographical fiction.

The Painted Bird is a first-person narrative about the tribulations of a small unnamed boy, who may or may not be Jewish or a Gypsy; he is separated from his parents during the Holocaust years in a Nazi-occupied Eastern European country. The incidents he narrates involve hideous cruelties, particularly to women, animals and to the boy himself. Eventually the boy is rescued by some members of the Red Army, and after the war's end is reunited with his parents, although the novel has no 'happy ending'. 2

Aesthetic criticisms of Kosinski's novel, which are inevitably linked to its subject and often acquire a 'moral' aspect, concentrate on its genre and use of

-67-

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Holocaust Fiction
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - Formal Matters 11
  • Chapter 2 - Documentary Fiction 38
  • Chapter 3 - Autobiographical Fiction 67
  • Chapter 4 - Faction 90
  • Chapter 5 - Melodrama 117
  • Chapter 6 - Historical Polemic 141
  • Conclusion 161
  • Notes 168
  • Bibliography 229
  • Index 233
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