Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Listened: "The Painted Bird" by Jerzy Kosinski

Listened: The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, 1965 (original pub date), downloaded from 

I saw this on Overdrive as I was scrolling through currently available titles.  I knew a little about the book because Victor Gischler referenced it in a couple novels and I had looked up the bare basics.  The author's 1976 Afterword fills in the novel's publishing history and the novel's public, critical, and political reaction are as interesting as the novel itself.  This book feels like torture porn.  Kosinski argues against this - more on that later - but that's what it felt like as I endured along. 

In 1939 Boy, about six-years-old and nameless, is sent by his family from a city in a "Eastern European country" to the countryside to save him from the war.  The countryside is not much different than 100 years ago.  People live in huts, rely on draft animals, and are ruled by superstition.  Each town is it's own entity.  The only outside forces are the partisans who battle each other and the Germans.  Competing partisan groups kill each other and force villagers - Boy always calls them peasants - to support them or be beaten or killed.

The novel is told episodically as Boy stays with different peasants in different towns.  Boy suffers and suffers and suffers again.  His dark hair and eyes clash with the blond and blue of the peasants and is called a gypsy or Jew.  He is beaten, starved, tortured and threatened with death.  Boy fears and avoids all other boys who beat Boy. He is always in fear of being sent to the Germans as an escaped gypsy or Jew.  (He is sent to a German post at one point and an army officer details a soldier to take Boy and shoot him.  The German soldier lets him go instead.)

Only rarely is Boy treated well.  Even the first woman to care for him - who dies and leaves him alone - was not that kind.  Within the villages beatings and murders are usually viewed passively or as entertainment.  Rarely do other villagers intervene when seeing mistreatment.  Abusing Boy is cause for laughter.  Boy fears and avoids all other boys.  They will find and beat him for being a gypsy or Jew.

Murder is common.  Physical abuse a practiced form of familial punishment.  Rape a constant fear.  Social behavior is ruled by superstition.  Children are often commodities.  Child rape.  Child murder.  Incest.  Bestiality.  Potions and salves made from ground up human and animal bones and urine, fecal matter, entrails, goat bile, spit.  Cover your mouth when you smile, someone will count your teeth and for each tooth counted a year of your life is stolen.  Never look a Gypsy in the eyes.   

How long will the boy suffer?  How long can the reader suffer?  Boy is struck hysterically mute.  Boy discovers revenge.

The boy tries to make sense of his situation and develops a few theories during the novel.  First he decides that prayer will save him from a vicious man he is staying with.  Boy prays for indulgences, figuring the more he prays the more indulgences he will receive from God.  He tries to figure out the magic formula to avoid beatings.  "Don't go through the gate.  Say nothing after it rains."

He later decides devils are in the world and control people.  Those people create pain and trouble and infect others with the devil's trouble. He himself is at risk of infection. 

A pro-Nazi partisan group comes upon Boy's village and starts a day long orgy of rape and murder.  Mass rape of women and children.  Torture and murder of women and men.  Gang rapes and partisans trying to one-up each another with imaginative brutality.  When Russian tanks and infantry arrive at the end of the day you want the partisans to suffer and hurt much more than their victims.  The Soviets hang the men by the ankles from trees along a river.

After the Russian Army saves boy Soviet Communism sounds great.  People are cared for and he figures that communism as spoken by the peasants - bringing everyone together - would bring Boy new brothers and sisters and men who would treat Boy with kindness and comfort and defend him.  Boy stays with a military unit and comes to realize the differences between theory and reality.  How the Party members are more important.  How men are to be judged by their own skills and values but that the Party decides what values are most important.

After the war ends the military sends Boy to an orphanage in his home city.  The orphanage is filled with kids acting out what they have lived through.  Beatings, rape, and murder.  Kids gang up on the "gypsy".  His parents arrive. You expect a tearful reunion and happy life.  Nope.  He does not adjust.  He cannot adjust.  Boy has learned that life is lived alone and at night he leaves the family apartment to prowl with the black marketeers, pimps, whores, and thieves.  He is sent to a mountain village, and after getting stuck in a blizzard he awakens in a hospital, answers a ringing phone and starts speaking again.

Kosinski's excellent Afterword gives a summary of the political turmoil the novel caused and the trouble it caused for him personally.  The government in Poland accused him of slurring the country, that Kosinski was a paid agent of the West.  A work of total fiction had people claiming to be the basis for characters or to live in a town the novel is set within. 

Accusation in Europe and the U.S. are that he exaggerates what happened during the war.  Kosinski points out ample evidence of the murder and abuse that critics ignored.  My comment on torture porn echo Kosinski's contemporary critics.  Kosinski argues that the novel is based on real events.   The book is not a sadistic exercise but a way to live through the experience by following the character.  Others who lived through the war accused Kosinski of watering down the story, that he played things nicer than they were to appeal to a U.S. audience.

1.  A reminder how civilization can disastrously fall apart.  When that happens some people stay civilized and some revert. The difficulty of maintain law and order.  Who would want the arrest and trial of the kind of people who gleefully rape and murder?  Clinging to superstition and rumor because the world has fallen apart, attacking anyone or thing that you think puts you at risk.  Don't think that things will be different in the future. 
2.  How many orphans did the Soviet Army come across as that fought back West through German trampled territory?
3.  I watched Come and See a few days ago.  A few days of a Russian boy's life under German occupation and the dramatic re-enactment of Germans murdering a whole village.  Kosinski mentions in his Afterward how concentration camp Germans were ordered to kill children first since they could not work. There is a horrid point in Come and See where a boy - three years old - is thrown through the window back into a burning house. That movie and this novel fit together.
4.  Shades of Europa, Europa with a young boy bouncing around from place to place and surviving.
5.  Kosinski writes how fiction allows the reader into the story more vividly and believably than nonfiction.  Your imagination takes over and you endure with the characters rather than question or ponder a NF story.
6. I was going to read a brief bio of Kosinski but skipped it.


George said...

I read THE PAINTED BIRD and STEPS when they were first published. Grim stuff. When Kosinski committed suicide I wasn't surprised.

Anonymous said...

Some of the book may be based on Roman Polanski's wartime experiences, although these are much more extreme.

Unknown said...

Kosinski--except for The Painted Bird--was an over-rated novelist. If he had only written The Painted Bird, which I read when it was first published, he would go down in literary history as a one-book genius.