Historical Analysis of Jerzy Kosinskis The Painted

BirdAn obscure village in Poland, sheltered from ideas and
industrialization, seemed a safe place to store ones most precious
valuable: a 6-year-old boy. Or so it seemed to the parents who
abandoned their only son to protect him from the Nazis in the
beginning of Jerzy Kosinskis provocative 1965 novel The Painted Bird.
After his guardian Marta dies and her decaying corpse and hut are
accidentally engulfed in flames, the innocent young dark-haired,
dark-eyed outcast is obliged to trek from village to village in search
of food, shelter, and companionship. Beaten and caressed, chastised
and ignored, the unnamed protagonist survives the abuse inflicted by
men, women, children and beasts to be reclaimed by his parents 7 years
later–a cold, indifferent, and callous individual.

The protagonists experiences and observations demonstrate that the
Holocaust was far too encompassing to be contained within the capsule
of Germany with its sordid concentration camps and sociopolitical
upheaval. Even remote and backward villages of Poland were exposed
and sucked into the maelstrom of conflict. The significance of this
point is that it leads to another logical progression: Reaching
further than the Polish villages of 1939, the novels implications
extend to all of us. Not only did Hitlers stain seep into even the
smallest crannies of the world at that time, it also spread beyond
limits of time and culture. Modern readers, likewise, are implicated
because of our humanity. The conscientious reader feels a sense of
shame at what we, as humans, are capable of through our cultural
mentalities. That is one of the more profound aspects of Kosinskis

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It is this sense of connectedness between cultures, people, and ideas
that runs through the book continuously. While the backward
nonindustrialized villages of Poland seem at first glance to contrast
sharply with civilized Nazi Germany, Kosinski shows that the two
were actually linked by arteries of brutality and bigotry. Both
cultures used some form of religious ideology to enforce a doctrine of
hate upon selected groups whom they perceived to be inferior.
Totalitarian rhetoric and Nietzschian existentialism replace a hybrid
of Catholicism, which in turn replaces medieval superstition as the
protagonist is carried from the innards of village life to the heart
of totalitarian power.

In the first several chapters of the novel the little protagonist is
firmly convinced that demons and devils are part of the tangible,
physical world. He actually sees them. They are not mythological
imaginings confined to a fuzzy spiritual world. They are real, and he
believes the villagers insistences that he is possessed by them. The
peasants use these superstitious beliefs to enforce a doctrine of hate
upon the boy. Even their dogs seem to believe in this credo, chasing,
biting, and barking at him as if a viciousness towards dark-haired
boys is programmed into their genetic makeup.
The text of the villagers behavior reads like a gruesome car
accident on the side of the road at which one cannot help but crane
ones neck. It is both repulsive and compelling; one reads in a state
of disbelief and horror. The cruelty, moreover, isnt limited to Jews
and Gypsies. Anyone getting in the way is targeted. The rule of weak
over strong prevails and justifies any actions taken against those
unfortunate enough to incite anger.
A stirring example of this phenomenon is when the protagonist
witnesses a jealous miller gouging out the eyes of his wifes lust
interest, an otherwise innocuous 14-year-old plowboy whose only sin
was in staring too fixedly at a womans bosom:
And with a rapid movement such as women used to gouge out the rotten
spots while peeling potatoes, he plunged the spoon into one of the
boys eyes and twisted it.

The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and
rolled down the millers hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and
shrieked, but the millers hold kept him pinned against the wall.
Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang
out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boys cheek as if
uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto
the floor.
The peasants behavior demonstrates that Hitler simply harnessed
preexisting attitudes. Even Poland, seemingly neutral and exploited as
it was, absorbed distrustful attitudes toward Jews and Gypsies and
felt no qualms about taking aggressions out violently on weaker
people. Everyone, to a certain extent, bought into this bigotry. It
left not even the most remote areas untouched.
As the novel progresses, the protagonist changes environments and
subsequently alters his religious beliefs. He realizes (during the
intervals when he is not being ravaged by a savage dog unleashed upon
him by the man he is staying with) that prayer–Catholicism–is the
answer to all his troubles. If he can only say enough Hail Marys,
all his misfortunes will disappear. Surely the Lord will hear him as
he stores up indulgences in heaven as in a bank, guaranteeing himself
both literal and spiritual salvation. But his prayers never save him
from cruelty and brutality. The more he prays, in fact, the worse
things seem to get. But, he reasons, Catholicism is a much more
rational religion than those silly superstitions with their foul
magical potions that never seem to work. Its a step in the right
direction. Even if his prayers arent being answered immediately, at
least hes assured a space in heaven.

Catholicism, likewise, was used by the peasants to persecute the
protagonist. He is chased out of the church by an angry mob after he
accidentally drops a sacred book during his short-lived stint as an
altar boy. Clearly, they use the accident as an excuse to exercise
hate towards him. He is accused of being possessed by the devil, and
the fact that his small frame staggers under the weight of the massive
book is proof. Catholicism, with respect to its members compassion,
is no different than medieval superstition. There is no Christian
love in this church. In the words of Nietzsche, God is dead.
Finally the protagonist is taken up by the Red Army, exposed to books
and new ideas, and convinced that God and devils, demons and heaven
and hell are all simply figments of the imagination, used by people
with power to get masses of people to do what they want. He reacts
against Catholicism with the same violent revulsion with which he
reacted against superstition. He feels incredibly foolish for having
believed such groundless ideas that had nothing to do with facts:
Recalling some of the phrases in those prayers, I felt cheated. They
were, as Gavrila said, filled only with meaningless words. Why hadnt
I realized it sooner?
With no God, there are no stone tablets from which to derive
morality. The protagonist comes to the realization that each man
makes his own morality, and whatever actions he commits within that
reality are justified because he is carrying out his own system of
values, ideals, beliefs. The best reality is that of the Communist
Party, he learns, who alone are capable of knowing what is best for
the masses: The Party members stood at that social summit from which
human actions could be seen not as meaningless jumbles, but as part of
a definite pattern.
In one scene the protagonists kindly mentor and role model, Mitka–a
grandfather figure–calmly fires a high powered machine gun at a
distant villager who is sleepily stretching his arms in the
sunlight-strewn hours of early morning. The admiring protagonist is
amazed. He understands that Mitkas action is justified because he is
superior, a member of the Party. Revenge is justified. We see from
this that cruelty still exists: it has simply changed form. What ties
the villagers superstitions together with totalitarianism is best
stated in the prologue of The Painted Bird: The only law in the
villages was the traditional right of the stronger and wealthier over
the weaker and poorer. .
One cant help but question the progress of the protagonists moral
character at the conclusion of the novel. He is cruel and indifferent
to other peoples suffering. Even as his parents finally come for
him, he breaks the fingers of his newly adopted four year old brother
without feeling the least bit of sympathy or remorse for his action.
Clearly, his philosophy has become a kind of social Darwinism: eat or
be eaten. Survival of the fittest.
What makes this book so complex is that no morals seem to be
propounded. The reader, along with the protagonist, is left sprawling
on a gigantic icy slab of chaotic relativism, his moral knees knocked
out from under him. He must rely on others to teach him, but everyone
has something different to tell him. We find that cruelty is made
understandable, love is perverted. Even sex is reduced to the basest
elements: animals copulating are no more base, no more beautiful than
humans. There is no distinction between man and beast. The two, in
fact, are often fused together and/or confused, each taking on the
qualities of the other.

In a Never Ending Storyish kind of way, the reader often finds
him/herself transplanted into the innocent mind and young helpless
body of the protagonist: through his suffering, his joys, his
bitterness and ambivalence. It is this transplantation that makes the
book so difficult to endure, and so irresistibly lucid and compelling.
I felt terrible and sad, angry at the world and at the cruelty that
one human being will do to another. I found myself questioning the
meaning of things right along with the protagonist. Kosinski achieves
the difficult task of inspiring sympathy without thrusting dogmatic
ideals into the readers head.
It is understandable to take a depressing view of the world from the
circumstances presented in the novel. Reality is turned upside down
and inside out, its guts laid bare for all to see, and finally
casually gotten used to and embraced by the main character. One
critic puts forth this nihilistic interpretation of the Painted Bird.
Poore states in his review:
The protagonist grew in his bitter wisdom immeasurably. The blows
he could not escape he endured. These were the cost-sheets of
survival in a senselessly brutal world. And when his turn came to
take some unfair advantage, he took it.

That, Mr. Kosinski seems to be telling us, is how things are in our
world. People who are treated unjustly do not invariably treat others
justly. People who are discriminated against in turn may be found
discriminating against others.
Unlike a Stephen King novel, however, the book avoids being cast into
the genre of cheap horror thrills because at the same time it creates
a deep sense of beauty and social responsibility while paradoxically
indicting the reader as being not much different than the murderous
villagers. One critic writes of this phenomenon by ascribing to
Kosinski the ability to create open-ended symbols which achieve the
difficult effect of mirroring whatever attitudes the reader brings
into the book. That, he explains, is why people have such differing
views on the novel, ranging from horror filled to awe-inspired. This
critic went on to say that, because each viewer makes the work his/her
own, he/she therefore is held accountable to his/her own
interpretation of the work. He states, For them, in fact, these
texts become a test of courage–whether or not they can recognize
themselves as not only the victims of language but also as the
Several other critics emphasized the books concentration on grim and
grotesque realities. Bauke repeatedly stresses the authors mastery
over painting the black tones of the protagonists harsh existence.
It is a book of terrifying impact, replete with scenes of sadism
rarely matched in contemporary writing, he writes. Mr. Kosinski
evokes with the grim precision of a dream a world of Gothic
While suffering and cruelty are, indeed, major recurring themes
throughout the book, beauty in its purity and innocence is also
depicted generously and with great texture. Sometimes the beauty is
even interwoven with what many would otherwise see as ugly. This is
evident in the protagonists first guardian, Marta. Marta is an
ambivalent figure, at best. She is ugly, foul smelling, and often
ignorant of the protagonists suffering. On the other hand, she
occasionally expresses an endearing sort of sentimentality toward him,
raking her long scraggly nails along his head affectionately. She also
attempts to heal him when he is ill, mixing vile treatments for him to
drink such as the juice of a squeezed onion, the bile of a billygoat
or rabbit, and a dash of raw vodka.Despite her odd, vomit-inducing
ways, the reader still gets a sense of her dedication: she cares.

The Painted Birds historical contributions lie not in the realm of
factual, unbiased, detail-laden information, but in giving us a new
way of thinking about the facts that we already have. Most history
books tend to focus only on the external aspects of Hitlers Nazi
partys rise to power, focusing on each country as if it was an entity
of itself, individualizing the nations as if they were so many
bickering ten-year-olds in the playground of the world. Few books
focus on the internal orders of such countries as Poland. Peasants
played a major role in ethnic extermination as well by condoning, and
often perpetuating, Hitlers hate. More than that, however, the
books slow panorama of superstition, Catholicism, and existentialism
give us a three-dimensional understanding of all the myriad of ideas
that were floating around at that time. We understand them from the
mind of a child, we apply them to the experiences we see him having.
And if we closely examine them, well find that such ideas are still
in the air today–that it is possible for something like the Holocaust
to happen again if circumstances are arranged just so. Bosnia, for
example, resounds with the echo of the Nazis boots.

One of the greatest aspects of fiction is that, in many senses, it is
always alive. It changes just as history and the people who write it
change. As each generation comes of age, they are able to write
history–and also fiction–according to their cultural values and
beliefs. The beauty of Kosinskis work is that he allows us to do
this. Through his loosely constructed symbolism, readers can
continually apply his fiction to modern interpretations. At the same
time, however, Kosinski holds us accountable through his graphic,
disturbing realistic depiction of what humans are capable of and have,
in fact, done. Perhaps if enough people are touched, they can,
indeed, prevent scenes like these from occurring again. In this
sense, Kosinskis work is a gift to humanity. It is a gift to the


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