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The Painted Bird ()

The Hungry Mind Review's 100 Best 20th Century Books

This is a book that I'm sufficiently ambivalent about that I recommend people read it themselves just to form their own opinion.  The basic premise of the book is that the six year old son of an anti-Hitler activist in an unnamed Eastern European country (presumably Poland) is sent to live in the rural East, in order to avoid being taken by the Nazis.  But the parents lose contact with the man who placed the boy with a foster mother and the woman herself, an aged crone, dies within two months of the boys arrival.  He is then left to wander the countryside, surviving as best he can.  In his journeys he is witness to innumerable acts of brutality and human horror.  Though Kosinski allowed people to believe for years that the tale is autobiographical, it is now accepted to be fictional, though perhaps based on the experiences of several of his friends, including the filmmaker Roman Polanski.

There are a couple of things I did like about the book.  First, rather than take the expected path and resort to a predictable catalogue of Nazi atrocities (which I don't mean to diminish in any way), Kosinski's real villains are the superstitious townspeople and later the advancing Red Army troops.  Like Jonah Goldhagen's groundbreaking book Hitler's Willing Executioners (see Orrin's reviews), Kosinski demonstrates that these were a people who were fully prepared for such barbarities as genocide long before Hitler ever prompted them to it.

Second, with the arrival of the Russians, Kosinski is able to demonstrate that the Communists were just as bad as the Nazis.  They terrorize the countryside and engage in reprisals which are just as frightening and outrageous as anything the Germans did.  This too should not be taken as an excuse for the Nazis, rather it is a healthy recognition that there was an equality of evil in the two totalitarian systems.

The image that gives the book it's title is also mildly interesting.  The boy lives briefly (all his stays are brief) with a bird catcher.  One of the sadistic tricks he amuses himself with is to paint a captive bird in a variety of garish hues and then release it near a flock of it's own species.  The poor bird tries frantically to rejoin his kind who viscously attack it because it looks so different.  The obvious symbolism is that mankind too attacks and destroys fellow men simply because of superficial differences.  The boy represents the painted bird desperately trying to return to his own, an effective, albeit unsubtle, image.

I also really liked the understanding of power that the boy arrives at.  Having been reunited with his family, the boy, who has lost the capacity for speech as a result of the trauma he has endured, finds himself at loose ends, unable to readjust to "normal" life after all that he's seen.  He and another boy begin to engage in escalating acts of vandalism until one day they throw a switch at a railway yard and derail a train :

    I recalled the trains carrying people to the gas chambers and crematories.  The men who had
    ordered and organized all that probably enjoyed a similar feeling of complete power over their
    uncomprehending victims.  They also controlled the fate of millions of people whose names, faces,
    and occupations were unknown to them, but whom they could either let live or turn to fine soot
    flying in the wind.  All they had to do was issue orders and in countless towns and villages trained
    squads of troops and police would start rounding up people for ghettos and death camps.  They had
    the power to decide whether the points of thousands of railroad spurs would be switched to tracks
    leading to life or to death.

    To be capable of deciding the fate of many people whom one did not even know was a magnificent
    sensation.  I was not sure whether the pleasure depended only on the knowledge of the power one
    had, or on its use.

I realize how extreme this will sound to some, but I believe that the central lesson of the world's mid-century encounter with fascism and communism is that you cede power to the government in order to get the trains running again or running on time and you end with them taking people to their deaths.  The very essence of power is ultimately that power of controlling innocent people's lives and of wielding life and death and it is why we should be ever vigilant against the accumulation of power in the hands of any sector of society, but particularly in the hands of government.

There are a number of aspects of the book, however, that are really troubling.  First is Kosinski's duplicity in claiming the experiences as his own.  Second, and more disturbing, is the frequency of sex in conjunction with violence, and of rape in particular, in the book.  At some point the author's obvious relish in describing acts of rape, and his inventiveness in imagining new methods, crosses the line and becomes less about the atrocities of WWII than about his warped obsessions.  These scenes are so gratuitous that it is uncomfortable-making to read them.

And the saddest aspect of the novel is the final lesson that the boy takes away from his experiences, as he contemplates an old ski instructor :

    We got up early every morning.  The instructor kneeled down for prayer while I looked on
    indulgently.  Here was a grown man, educated in the city, who acted like a simple peasant and
    could not accept the idea that he was alone in the world and could expect no assistance from
    anyone.  Every one of us stood alone, and the sooner a man realized that all Gavras, Mitkas and
    Silent Ones [the boy's few friends] were expendable, the better for him.  It mattered little if one
    was mute; people did not understand one another anyway.  They collided with or charmed one
    another, hugged or trampled one another, but everyone thought only of himself.  His emotions,
    memory, and senses divided him from others as effectively as thick reeds screen the mainstream
    from the muddy bank.  Like the mountain peaks around us, we looked at one another, separated by
    valleys, too high to pass unnoticed, too low to touch the heavens.

Believing this, it comes as no surprise that Kosinski eventually committed suicide.  But to believe this is to concede final victory to the totalitarians, for if mankind is truly this atomized and if we are genuinely incapable of connecting with one another, then what matter to me the death of millions.

I would prefer to turn the seminal symbol of fascism against the fascists.  The fasces is an ancient symbol, depicting a bundle of arrows bound together.  It represents the idea that a single arrow can easily be bent and broken, but bind it with several more and it becomes nearly unbreakable.  Though the fascists use this imagery to foster support for the rigidly unified and regimented state, we should appropriate it from them and use it to symbolize the idea that though we are all individuals capable of standing on our own, we gain immeasurable strength when we are bound together through societal ties. (You may be surprised to find the eagle on the quarter in your pocket is gripping such a fasces--"E Pluribus Unum.") The systemic breakdowns and the failure of institutions to protect the victims of Nazism and Communism must stand as a monument of shame but we can not let this lapse destroy our faith in humanity.

As I said at the outset, I am deeply ambivalent about this one.  I do however think it's worth reading even if your final verdict on the book is a negative one.  There is, at least, plenty to think about here.


Grade: (C)


Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "jerzy kosinski"
    -PROFILE :  In Novels and Life, a Maverick and an Eccentric (MERVYN ROTHSTEIN, NY Times)
    -Literary Research Guide: Jerzy Kosinski (1933 - 1991)
    -Jerzy Kosinski (1933-91)(American Literature on the Web)
    -Jerzy Kosinski Home Page
    -Jerzy Kosinski Virtual Ave
    -Kosinski Web Page
    -Jerzy Kosinski Chronology
    -LINKS :  Resources for Jerzy Kosinski (Engaged Learning Project)
    -ARCHIVES : "jerzy kosinski" (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Historical Analysis of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird
    -ESSAY : Jerzy Kosinski's Peculiar Literary Fascination With Transsexual Women  (Dallas Denny,
    -ESSAY : The Dialectics of Getting There:  Kosinski's Being There and the Existential Anti-Hero (Scott C. Holstad, Department of English, California State University)
    -ESSAY : Jerzy Kosinski :  Writing by Chance and Necessity (William Gallo)
    -REVIEW : Jun 1, 1967 Neal Ascherson: Chronicles of the Holocaust, NY Review of Books
       Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner and Preface by Simone de Beauvoir
       The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski
       They Fought Back: The Story of the Jewish Resistance in Nazi Europe
       Resistance Against Tyranny edited by Eugene Heimler
       The Murderers Among Us: The Wiesenthal Memoirs by Simon Wiesenthal
    -REVIEW : February 27, 1969 D.A.N. Jones: Lean Creatures, NY Review of Books
       Steps by Jerzy Kosinski
       Up by Ronald Sukenick
       Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
       Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room by Janet Frame
    -REVIEW : Jul 1, 1971 V.S. Pritchett: Clowns, NY Review of Books
       Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy
       Being There by Jerzy Kosinski
    -REVIEW : of  By  PINBALL. By Jerzy Kosinski (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of PINBALL By Jerzy Kosinski (Benjamin DeMott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Hermit of 69th Street By Jerzy Kosinski  (WALTER GOODMAN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THE HERMIT OF 69th STREET The Working Papers of Norbert Kosky. By Jerzy Kosinski (John Calvin Batchelor, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. By James Park Sloan (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of JERZY KOSINSKI A Biography. By James Park Sloan (Louis Begley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. By James Park Sloan (D. G. Myers, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan (Steven E. Alford)
    -REVIEW : of  Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography by James Park Sloan (LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of  Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. By James Park Sloan (Edward Neuert, Salon)

    -REVIEW : of Being There (1979) (Pedro Sena)

    -AWARDS : National Book Award Winners


a devastating book...but such a multiple of atrocities and horrible acts is to me litlle objective.I believe the child's perspective is simple: divides things to evil or good;a child observer of the WWII reality could see overwhelmingly evil, so much of it that in ''normal'' reality his experiences seem to be surrealistic, unbelievable ones.he gains only hatred from it and gives it back. However I live in that part of Eastern Europe, I realize of the cruelties of the war, of the terrible things people who lived here years before had done. But I also know the fall of the mankind was not at all the only perceptible thing to see then. There had lived here people who proved to be the human beings par excellance. Since the book presents only the dark extract of the human nature and its cration - civilization it's of no factual or historical value.The question is whether such one sided story, full of hatred can bring anything new or fresh to literature, to us? After all do we consent to Kosinski's universal truth that the human being's civilizations brutally kill theirs "paited birds"?

- marta

- Aug-19-2005, 18:17


I enjoyed the book as well..and I think your review on it hits the spot exactly. I felt the same exact emotions towards the book and the author. This book gives you a better understanding of life back then and how things were so terribly devastating in the War times.

- ashley

- Apr-28-2005, 13:13


Actually, Kosinksi doesn't seem to portray the nazi's in too bad of a light either, which doesn't make for a very believable book. It is the peasants who committ most of the attrocities. (along with the kalmuks who squeeze in as much brutality in one chapter as the peasants have in the entire book) Reading this book it is obvious that it is very loosely based on Kosinkski's life. Compare it to Night by Elie Wiesel, and you might draw the conclusion that the protagonist would have been less traumatized if he had just been sent to a concentration camp. Though rural peasants in Eastern Europe (of whom I am descended) are certainly anti-semitic and probably a little backward, especially around the time of the book's setting, it is difficult to believe that the author would have witnessed bizarre deaths, rape, sexual acts in just about every single village he has visited. The Red Army is given a good portrayal, though possibly only through the inocent eyes of a young boy. The protagonist sees the Red Army as a saviour and admires the two soldiers, efforts to teach him even if they are feeding him propaganda. Not that I'm a Marxist apologist or anything but it seems that you are trying to find arguments against socialism, liberalism, communism, etc. sometimes where they don't exist, even if you have to change the meaning of the story to find them.

- k.m.

- Mar-07-2005, 18:59


Interesting review except that the communists, the Red Army are not presented as especially brutal. The Kalmuk who are "employed" by the Nazis are extremely brutal; they are the characters on horseback who rape and terrorize the villagers just before the Red Army arrives. The Red Army does hang the Kalmuk from the trees by their ankles,but in the context of this novel that is rather tame.

- Geoffrey

- Jul-01-2003, 23:52