Jess's Reviews > The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński
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Oct 22, 2008

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Read in October, 2008

The Painted Bird was a controversial book for years after its publication, and it's difficult to separate the book from the controversy. Artistically speaking, I was not terribly impressed by this novel - it seemed to me little more than a parade of macabre episodes. I'm a fan of such horrors when they're described so poignantly that they leap off the page; after all, I just described Blood Meridian as my new favorite novel. But Kosinski's prose is simple, his images blunt-edged and so ugly as to eventually numb the reader. In order to be convincing, this book needed more contrast: only the ugly side of humanity is depicted, and for that ugliness to come swarming off the pages effectively, there needed to be something beautiful and pure with which to compare it. There was no such thing. For that reason, I can't call this book powerful, as so many critics have. The "light at the end of the tunnel" came in the form of the young protagonist's delivery from the horrid Christian peasants by the atheist Soviet army, and the most positive words in the book were devoted to his new Supreme Deity, Stalin. Although the rejection of God and Christianity was convincing, I couldn't detect even a hint of irony in the Stalin worship - one can't help but wonder if the young man ever decided that Stalin was just as poor a choice of idol as God had been.

As a piece of war literature, however, I don't feel qualified to judge the book's impact or relevance. Kosinski is a WWII survivor who no doubt saw plenty of things just as gruesome as those he describes in this 20th century medieval fairy tale. I doubt he meant to be literal, and much of the outrage with which the book was received in his homeland was probably the result of a too-literal interpretation. Did Polish peasants in the 1940's really mix human & horse urine with cat feces, ground horse bones and extra-plump lice as a cure for a bellyache? I really have no idea, but this and many other details seemed to belong in the Dark Ages rather than WWII Europe, which may be a meaningful and justifiable comment on the part of the author. The back of the book is probably right when it calls The Painted Bird one of WWII's most important documents. But that doesn't make it an exceptional novel.
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