The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

I’m sharing a review of mine from almost 13 years ago. Why? Because recently some acquaintances have been discussing the awfulness of this book, and how this awfulness should stop anyone from reading it. I can understand these reactions and yet I still think it is a novel worth reading. Why? There’s a power in the writing, awful as the content is. But more importantly, for me a reiteration that man’s inhumanity to man takes many forms and vulnerability is often relative rather than absolute.

If you’ve read the novel, what did you think?

Here’s my review from 2007:

‘Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?’

‘The Painted Bird’ was first published by Jerzy Kosiński in 1965, and revised in 1976. It is a fictional account of the personal experiences of a boy aged six who could be Jewish or might be a Gypsy taking refuge in Eastern Europe during World War II. It is a fictional account filled with hate for Polish peasantry and packed with excruciating, horrifying detail of rape, murder, bestiality and torture.

‘The Painted Bird’ depicts a journey through a very brutal and brutalising hell. There are no safe places, really, for this boy. He may have escaped with his life but he can never escape his experiences.

There are good reasons to not like this book: it is not, as has been thought, an autobiographical account of Kosiński’s own experiences. Additionally it relies on the proximity of the Holocaust to intensify its own horror; it demonises Polish peasantry as both cruel and backward; and it wallows in violence. But for all of that, it has its own haunting power.

I’ve first read this novel at least 20 years ago and recently revisited it. I do not like the graphic, seemingly unending violence. The point is made and reiterated: man’s inhumanity to man takes many forms and vulnerability is often relative rather than absolute. Did Kosiński really regard the world as being beyond redemption? Is that the question he was posing in this novel? Is that why he committed suicide in 1991? Did he write this novel to give voice to his own despair as a consequence of the events of World War II? For me this novel raises far more questions than it answers. And some of those questions about the author and his intent colour the way I read this novel. I cannot ‘hate’ it: it is far too well written for that. I cannot ‘love’ it: it is far too ugly and there are far too many questions unanswered. Instead, I ‘like’ it in an uneasy sort of way because it makes me wonder about the world.

I won’t need to read it again.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith