The Inconceivability of The Painted Bird

I read The Painted Bird (1965) by Jerzy Kosinski. At first, I was enthralled. I could not put this book down. The story of a six-year-old boy sent to the Polish countryside by his parents during World War II to save him was intriguing. He was reviled and hated by villagers, but he somehow always found a person to take him in. Sometimes that person was kind and guided him. Sometimes that person was mean and beat him relentlessly. I felt sorry for him. I was astounded at the meanness and superstitions of these villagers.

painted bird

However, as the boy grew older and the adventures continued, I began to wonder how any of what was happening was possible or conceivable, even for a novel. The boy is constantly strung up and threatened, kept there by his master’s dog; the boy witnesses bestiality among an entire family; the boy tricks an angry farmer into falling into an old shed full of rats and he watches that man get eaten alive; the boy and the villagers steal clothing and items from the Jews dropped on the railroad tracks; the boy witnesses the rape and murder of an entire village by roaming bands who are able to rape in every way imaginable (what a disgusting scene); the boy takes up with Russian soldiers and becomes a communist; the boy is reunited with his family and breaks his little brothers arm on purpose.

I’m not sure what I’m arguing here. I just found the craziness of the book tiresome after the first half. And while I’m not sure that the author meant for the piece to be autobiographical (he argues it is not because he was criticized for it), I’m not sure that the story makes much sense even as fiction.

It is called The Painted Bird because the boy lives for a while with a man who loves birds. This man catches birds and sells them, and every so often, he will paint one of them with many colors and then release it among its own kind. The other birds won’t recognize the bird, and “one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground” (p. 51). This is a metaphor, perhaps for the boy’s life as an orphan during wartime, but it is also a powerful image of how prone we all are to reject difference. We will reject those who different aesthetically, without taking into account their souls and their sameness to us.

I would not recommend this book, despite some of its deeper messages. There was something wrong with it, something I can’t quite put my finger on.

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