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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7 thoughts on “The Inconceivability of The Painted Bird

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  1. Thanks for the review Emily. Parts of the book appear hard to stomach. One wonders if it is suitable for bedtime reading! Who knows the bounds of some horrors in WW2 Poland. But, some questions sit in my mind: why did the author insert so much dreadful experience in one plot? Was it based on someone’s life or has the author tried to construct a fictional plot based on the experiences of many peoples lives?

    1. I suspect it was a fictional plot based on the various experiences of many people. I also suspect that some of the stories were folkloric. However, I think he wanted people to think it was autobiographical, given that he apparently told these stories at dinner parties before publishing them. He changed that tune when critics called foul, given that so many of the stories are so unlikely, especially for one person to have experienced.

  2. I would agree with you, Emily, that perhaps the book was an allegory about humans’ incapability to accept those different from us or what we expect, but…YUCK! This is one of those rare times that I will not be adding one of your reviewed works to my TBR listing! Definitely not for me. Perhaps it would at least work better for someone who reads horror? IDK…

    1. Your reaction to this kinda reminds me of my initial reaction to The Happy Marriage…in that you’re uncertain of the author’s purpose.

      1. Yes, Lynn! That’s it. I do feel a lot like you did with The Happy Marriage. And you’re right. Yuck. This was a yucky book. I get that war is yucky, but this one was disjointed and seemed like it had its shoes on backwards or something.

  3. This sounds horrifying – almost like many of the awful events were unnecessary to get the message across. It makes me wonder how that poor boy turned out – he wasn’t very protected from the war in the end, was he?

    1. In the novel, he is pretty much a hooligan by the time he’s a teen and he finds his parents again. I suppose some children have really suffered this much. It was horrifying!

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