Paperback: 234 pages
Publisher: Grove Press
By Rae Atabay, Courier Staff Writer
The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosiński, gives a creepy and deeply disturbing look into the psychological impact of war and how it can make even the most innocent people do the most horrid unimaginable things.
The book starts off in the fall of 1939. A nameless black-haired, young boy is separated from his parents at the beginning of World War II. Walking around the the more rural area of the country, the boy is mistaken for a Gypsy or a Jew by fair-haired, blue-eyed farmers and is then shunned. Even those who usually gave him a home and fed him, started to treat him with cruelty.
This is not an uplifting book at all. The cruelty the boy witnesses and experiences often breaks down his imagination and takes away from him being "just a kid". Kosinski does not attempt to censor his gruesome descriptions, and he shouldn't because it would take away from the story. To simply go over the terrible events of World War II would be an injustice to those who suffered through it. Though the book is not autobiographical, events like this did actually happen during the war.
It is probably safe to assume that the story takes place in Poland, though it seems Kosinski has left out place names on purpose, in order to keep the narrative separate from his own life. As he says in the author's note at the beginning, he wanted the book to stand alone.
The story takes place over the entire course of the war, taking the boy from age six to age twelve. Through out the book, we get to see his gradual loss of innocence. He repeatedly tries to make sense of a senseless world. For a while he commits himself into going to church, hoping that various prayers will save him. When this doesn't work, he decides that the only way to escape suffering is to make a pact with the devil. And when this also fails to stop his sadness, he becomes completely disappointed with humanity. We see him start off, slowly, to take on the violence that has caused him so much pain. It is the only way to survive in the war environment around him.
The Painted Bird is tragically disappointing, although shows a picture of the boy's psychological transformation. It will leave you feeling empty, but makes the reader realize certain issues. Kosinski has deliberately used a very young, innocent child as the protagonist in order to show the destructive, corrupting nature of war. At a time when war is a far away thing, taking place on other continents, it is easy to lightly brush it aside and to forget what it is like for those experiencing it first-hand. For this reason, books like The Painted Bird are necessary to read, which forces us to look at the physical and emotional situation war can carry out on a person. I would highly recommend the book to anyone, but also keep in mind this is not for "softies". Be prepared for a very disturbing and dark journey.