Jerzy: A Novel

  • Review
By – February 8, 2017

Jerzy is a fic­tion­al recre­ation of the life of Jerzy Kosin­s­ki, the famed author and Holo­caust sur­vivor, told through a myr­i­ad of per­spec­tives includ­ing those of the movie star Peter Sell­ers and Svet­lana, Joseph Stalin’s daugh­ter. Author Jerome Charyn places Kosin­s­ki, an enig­mat­ic and revered author, most notably of The Paint­ed Bird, in the midst of imag­ined vignettes and dia­logues in order to pro­vide insights into the life of the secre­tive and con­tro­ver­sial author. 

The Paint­ed Bird por­trays the life of a six-year-old boy, aban­doned by his par­ents dur­ing World War II, who wan­ders around Europe look­ing for sym­pa­thy and find­ing only bru­tal­i­ty; he wit­ness­es mur­ders and rape. The title refers to a sto­ry Kosin­s­ki once heard of a peas­ant who would trap birds, paint them white, and set them free — only to watch the flock who didn’t rec­og­nize their for­mer com­rade attack him to death.

Ini­tial­ly most read­ers saw Kosin­s­ki as the paint­ed bird, a help­less vic­tim of untold atroc­i­ties. How­ev­er, Charyn argues that as Kosin­s­ki became famous, he turned into a social climber, oppor­tunist, and sex­u­al preda­tor. As a result, a the­o­ry emerged that he could be bet­ter rep­re­sent­ed by the cru­el painter of birds, not the bird itself. It was also alleged that he relied on oth­ers to write much of his work, per­haps even pla­gia­rized and exag­ger­at­ed the claims he had made about being aban­doned dur­ing the War. In fact, he spent the war years with his par­ents, mov­ing from coun­try to country.

The sto­ry begins in an off­beat way, when Sell­ers, a tal­ent­ed com­ic actor, hires the nar­ra­tor as a chauf­feur a because he wants him to run over one of Sell­ers’ ene­mies. Kosin­s­ki and Sell­ers become acquaint­ed when Sell­ers wish­es to play a part in the movie ver­sion of Kosinski’s book Being There. Only after pur­su­ing the role for three years did Sell­ers final­ly get Kosin­s­ki to relent and offer him the part of the gard­ner who even­tu­al­ly becomes a can­di­date for vice pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

The play­boy life that Kosin­s­ki and Sell­ers lived is told in vivid detail. But Kosinski’s unex­pect­ed friend­ship with Svet­lana, called Lana in the book, pro­vides much-need­ed warmth and reveals var­i­ous sym­pa­thet­ic aspects of Kosinski’s char­ac­ter. The dia­logue that Charyn has cre­at­ed between Lana and Kosin­s­ki is enchant­i­ng and offers insights into a gen­tler and more emo­tion­al aspect of Kosinski. 

This book is as full of sur­pris­es as Jerzy Kosin­s­ki was him­self. Charyn has cap­tured Kosinski’s mul­ti­fac­eted and com­plex per­son­al­i­ty. The book whets the reader’s appetite to learn even more about a man who is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly reviled and respected. 

Jerzy is excerpt­ed in the 2017 issue of Paper Brigade.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

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