All comments welcome; and, welcome as additions to the site:

Unless otherwise stated,
all content © A.E.M. Baumann


Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

– Dec. 12, 2014

This is my amazon-type review. I have also a more in-depth engagement of the book and the discourse that surrounds it in the Literature drawer, here.

I here set aside all issues with authorship or biography. Equally, I set aside the history of this book's reception and the discourse that arose around this book after publication, a discourse that first defined the book as one of the great texts of Holocaust literature and then castigated the book as a fraud of Holocaust literature. Both those receptions are false to the book itself and speak only of what others would have had of the book.

While the book takes place in occupied Poland during WWII, this book is not about WWII. It is not a book about the Holocaust: indeed, "Jewishness" plays at best a trivial role in the book, and the camps but a minor role. Nor is this book an indictment of Nazi Germany: if it were it seems rather odd that an SS officer is one of the kinder people toward the boy (the unnamed, main character of the book). But then it is entirely false to the book itself to try to read it as an historical narrative.

The Painted Bird is, rather, a mythic tale, in many ways told in the nature of a European fairy tale. It is the story of a mythic hero cast by circumstances outside his control into a symbolic "journey through hell": beginning in what to all purposes are medieval peasant villages, then moving loosely through time into the larger "village" that is the communism of the Russian liberators. (But not moving "historically" through time; in this strange world there is no past or present; just the mythic now.) The question here is not whether the boy will survive the journey or be killed: the question is whether he will emerge the mythic hero on the other side of the journey, or fail and become lost, permanently, in the dark otherworld. To that end, there are two, primary, greatly inter-related energies within the book. The first is that which goes to painting the Bosch-like (not my phrase, but a good one) vision of hell. The second lies in the philosophies of being that the boy encounters, that he learns directly or indirectly through those individuals he meets on his journey. It is through these philosophies of being that the boy seeks not only the means to endure the physical difficulties of his journey, but more importantly – and here we get to the central conflict of the book – the means to maintain his individuality against the cruelties of cultural groups that at its core cannot tolerate individuality. It is a book about painted birds, yes, birds that are destroyed by the flock because they are different. But it is also a book about how the birds get painted in the first place. Most importantly, it is a book about psychical individuality.

The book is wholly a literary work: well conceived and designed and very well crafted. Yes, the violence is to the extreme, but it is well used to the end of pulling the book out of an historical world and into a mythic world. (Even within the violence and sex one can find mythic, fairy tale, and old-world-religious thematics.) If you can enter this work removing it from the discourse of Holocaust literature that tried to claim the book as its own, you will discover quite an aesthetic, literary experience. The Painted Bird is literature of a higher caliber, and it deserves to be preserved and praised as such.

To note: I use the idea of the mythic hero with the intention of the connection being made to such works as Jospeh Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The more I think about The Painted Bird, the more resonance I find between the journey of Kosinki's boy and the mythic journey as described by Campbell. Those energies go all the more to the symbolic and literary value of the work.

Also to note, it is worth getting the second edition of the book (the current edition) so as to have the Afterward, written a decade after the original publication. In my edition the Afterward comes first in the text. I would recommend not reading it until after you have finished the book. In truth, the afterward is mostly about the reception of the book, not the book itself. As such, it may create false ideas that might be brought into the book. However, once you have read the book, the Afterward easily slips into its rightful context.