Kosinski, Jerzy. (1965). The Painted Bird. Grove Press; New York.
Let me begin this review by providing the potential reader with a warning – this book describes incredibly disturbing acts of violence and sexual depravity. The plot follows a young boy, abandoned by his parents during World War II, as he wanders from one village to another. In these villages he is persecuted by the ignorant peasants for his dark hair and olive skin as a “Jewish stray” or a “Gypsy brat”.
Although barely over the age of ten, this boy witnesses deeply hate-filled acts between human beings, which causes him to reflect on the nature of God and purpose of his existence. For a time he is mute. This makes it more challenging for him to be taken in by the casual stranger. He is beaten, drowned, burned, tortured, and persecuted; his possible deaths outnumber the characters in the story.
When he tentatively experiences feelings of love towards Ewka, daughter of farmer Makar, he sees her engaging in acts of incest and bestiality. This causes him to embrace evil and from there I thought I noticed a steady decline in his humanity, culminating in his desire to switch train tracks and kill all of the passengers within (an act which is accomplished by his orphan compatriot, the Silent One). He explains his eventual worldview, which is support by the Soviet officer Mitka:
“A person should take revenge for every wrong or humiliation. There are far too many injustices in the world to have them all weighed and judged. A man should consider every wrong he had suffered and decide on the appropriate revenge. […] A man should take revenge according to his own nature and the means at his disposal” (Kosinski, 1965, pg. 214).
The title of the story alludes to the young boy’s isolation from other humans. During the boy’s stay with a professional bird catcher, the older man paints bird’s wings and releases them into flocks of their own kin. The other birds notice that this new bird is a strange colour, and kill it as an intruder (Wikipedia article). In the same way, when the young boy is reunited with his parents, he debates the value of freedom and feels smothered by loving protection.
Author Jerzy Kosinski gained extensive praise for the novel, which he claimed was largely autobiographical, but eventually fell from public esteem and regard (Phillip Routh, 2007). Mystery continues to cloak his personal life – his two marriages, his suicide at age 57, and his “free-wheeling lifestyle” which involved visits to elite and kinky sex clubs (Phillip Routh, 2007). Today it is generally believed that The Painted Bird was plagiarized, ghost-written by assistant editors, and not nearly as autobiographical as Jerzy claimed (Phillip Routh, 2007). Rather than decreasing the value of the novel, the book’s mysterious author enhances its curiosity and the compelling nature of its content.
I recommend this book for the constitutionally strong individual – be ready, if you pick it up, to be shocked and disgusted with humanity, while also reflecting on the nature of God, existence, and survival.