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Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird

by Jerzy Kosinski

(3/5 stars)

The next edition the publisher prints could use the tag line: If you loved "The Road" you'll love "The Painted Bird!" It's much the same thing: a child wandering through a wasteland witnessing and experiencing violence and debauchery of every variety at every turn. In this case it's an unnamed boy wandering Eastern Europe (most likely Poland) after his parents send him away to protect him from the Nazis and his caretaker dies. For most of the novel the boy is being taken in by or captured by assorted farmers, who without fail proceed to abuse him in a variety of ways.

The content of this book is the stuff of nightmares: a boy getting his eyes gouged out, a man being devoured by a swarm of rats, women being violated in the most brutal fashion by men and sometimes animals. As an American growing up in the Cold War this is probably the first time when I've actually been cheering for the appearance of the Red Army--they at least only brutalize those who have it coming to them.

The title of the novel comes from one of the peasants who traps birds. For sport he takes one of the birds, paints it garish colors, and then releases it into a flock of its fellows. The other birds, not recognizing it as one of them, proceed to tear the poor creature to bits. Such is life for the boy as he wanders around this backward country that except for mentions of guns and bombs seems to be mired in the Middle Ages as almost everyone he meets fails to recognize him as human and tries to tear him apart.

An obvious question one has to ask is how different the peasants are in their treatment of this dark-haired/dark-skinned boy than the Nazis are in their treatment of Jews and other minorities. Really the only difference seems to be the scale. If there's one positive message to take from this it's that we should always look past the paint on one's feathers to recognize the bird beneath.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't recommend this book to most people. It is brutal and terrible. I thought books like "Blood Meridian" and "American Psycho" were about as dark and unpleasant as reading could get, but I was wrong. This is easily ten times more nasty and horrific than anything Stephen King could dream up. What makes it worse is to think that so much of it is probably true--unless you're one of those conspiracy theorists who doesn't believe in the Holocaust. I'm all for free speech and I see what the author's driving at but there's a difference between making a point and gratuitous violence and debauchery. The thought struck me as I was reading that maybe if the Marquis de Sade were writing a novel of World War II this is how he'd do it: savage, brutal, and perverse.

The only ones I would recommend this to are those dreaming up the wars and holocausts now and to come. Maybe it would shock some sense into them. That's probably what Kosinski had in mind.

That is all.

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