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Jerzy Kosinski: The Painted Bird

This book is known as much for the controversy about its authorship and authenticity as its content. Kosinski had claimed that it was based on his own wartime experiences and written in English by him, despite the fact that he had not lived long in the United States when he wrote it. Both claims have shown to be a fraud. There were also claims of plagiarism. Whether it is based on Kosinski’s own experiences or not, it is still a powerful novel about the Holocaust and stands on its own.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator. It tells the story of a six year old boy whose dark features make him look Jewish or Gypsy. He is sent East by his parents to escape the invading Nazis. He is initially with an adult but they become separated. He does spend some time with an old peasant woman, Marta, but is soon off on his travels again when she dies and her cabin burns to the ground. Much of the novel concerns his adventures and travels and his dealings with the local peasants, many of whom are brutal and violent and perverted, towards him and towards others. The title, for example, comes from the story of a boy who captures birds and paints them. He then releases them to watch them attacked by their fellow birds who see it only as an intruder. But many of the other interactions – rape, torture and sexual abuse – are horrendous. One of the effects is that he loses his ability to speak, an ability he only regains at the end of the book, after the war.

As with some of his other books, this is not a fun read but as a portrait of the Holocaust it is a first-class work Even if it is not based on what really happened to the young Kosinski – and it seems almost certainly not to have been – it is still essential reading about the Holocaust.

Publishing history

First published 1965 by Houghton Mifflin