One of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. Yet as the small boy wanders from one grotesque encounter to another, uprooted and friendless in war-torn, peasant Poland, it is hard not to become fascinated, even obsessed with the bizarre horrors that envelop him.
Is this an autobiographical tale, or a series of macabre fantasies, engendered by folklore and wartime’s loose civilization? Or it is both? Jerzy Kosinski, born Lewinkopf, was dubbed Kosinski, by his father when the family went into hiding during World War II. They were sheltered by peasant Catholics, who risked being discovered by the Germans for sheltering Jews. Jerzy even became a Catholic altar boy.
As does his character in the Painted Bird. But so inept and terrorized is the child, that he stumbles, drops the sacred text, and all hell breaks loose. By this time in the novel, however, we expect the worst. We expect brutish peasant fathers to force their daughters to copulate with goats. We expect an aged herb healer to stumble into death, pushed by boy she’s taken in. We expect gangs of village boys to torture rabbits and wayfarers. We expect the kindly bird catcher to paint his favorite birds in gaudy colors, one by one, after his Ludmilla, a whore repeatedly raped by soldiers and villagers, disappears. When the bird-catcher sends the painted birds into the sky, they fly instantly to their kind, who attack them savagely, unable to recognize them through their gaudy disguise.
It’s hard not to consider this an allegory of the artist’s life, for Kosinski painted himself with one fable after another. He married an heiress who died shortly after from a brain tumor. She left him nothing. He was recognized as a fine polo player, he had a part in Warren Beatty’s movie, Red. And he received grants and awards from a fake foundation he himself founded, as well as the bona fide Guggenheim. When he committed suicide in 1991, it’s not hard to imagine that his own fictions were pecking him to death.
Still the powerful work remains, with its rather slow, subdued ending. As the war nears its close, the wandering boy is taken in by a group of Russian soldiers and becomes the side-kick of a crack marksman, as fine a shot as was the adult Kosinski himself who also enlisted with the Russians. When the boy finally is reuinted with his parents, a period of intense testing ensues. One can’t help but consider this psychologically accurate. How could a child, forced to witness and participate in adult horrors, easily settle down to obedience?
Several times, I almost stopped listening to this novel. But after a period of disgust, I began again. It is an astonishing tour de force, and its truth, though extreme, became, for me, ultimately believable. Or at least knowable.