- Paperback: 234 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press; 2nd edition (August 9, 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 080213422X
- ISBN-13: 978-0802134226
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 229 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #56,730 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Painted Bird Paperback – Notebook, August 9, 1995
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Many writers have portrayed the cruelty people inflict upon each other in the name of war or ideology or garden-variety hate, but few books will surpass Kosinski's first novel, The Painted Bird, for the sheer creepiness in its savagery. The story follows an abandoned young boy who wanders alone through the frozen bogs and broken towns of Eastern Europe during and after World War II, trying to survive. His experiences and actions occur at and beyond the limits of what might be called humanity, but Kosinski never averts his eyes, nor allows us to.
One of the best. . . . Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity.”Elie Wiesel, The New York Times Book Review
A powerful blow on the mind because it is so carefully kept within the margins of probability and fact.”Arthur Miller
Of all the remarkable fiction that emerged from World War II, nothing stands higher than Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird. A magnificent work of art, and a celebration of the individual will. No one who reads it will be unmoved by it. The Painted Bird enriches our literature and our lives.”Jonathan Yardley, The Miami Herald
Extraordinary . . . literally staggering . . . one of the most powerful books I have ever read.”Richard Kluger, Harper’s Magazine
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While the book takes place in occupied Poland during WWII, this book is not about WWII. It is not a book about the Holocaust: indeed, "Jewishness" plays at best a trivial role in the book, and the camps but a minor role. Nor is this book an indictment of Nazi Germany: if it were it seems rather odd that an SS officer is one of the kinder people toward the boy (the unnamed, main character of the book). But then it is entirely false to the book itself to try to read it as an historical narrative.
_The Painted Bird_ is, rather, a mythic tale, in many ways told in the nature of a European fairy tale. It is the story of a mythic hero cast by circumstances outside his control into a symbolic "journey through hell": beginning in what to all purposes are medieval peasant villages, then moving loosely through time into the larger "village" that is the communism of the Russian liberators. (But not moving "historically" through time; in this strange world there is no past or present; just the mythic now.) The question here is not whether the boy will survive the journey or be killed: the question is whether he will emerge the mythic hero on the other side of the journey, or fail and become lost, permanently, in the dark otherworld. To that end, there are two, primary, greatly inter-related energies within the book. The first is that which goes to painting the Bosch-like (not my phrase, but a good one) vision of hell. The second lies in the philosophies of being that the boy encounters, that he learns directly or indirectly through those individuals he meets on his journey. It is through these philosophies of being that the boy seeks not only the means to endure the physical difficulties of his journey, but more importantly -- and here we get to the central conflict of the book -- the means to maintain his individuality against the cruelties of cultural groups that at its core cannot tolerate individuality. It is a book about painted birds, yes, birds that are destroyed by the flock because they are different. But it is also a book about how the birds get painted in the first place. Most importantly, it is a book about psychical individuality.
The book is wholly a literary work: well conceived and designed and very well crafted. Yes, the violence is to the extreme, but it is well used to the end of pulling the book out of an historical world and into a mythic world. (Even within the violence and sex one can find mythic, fairy tale, and old-world-religious thematics.) If you can enter this work removing it from the discourse of Holocaust literature that tried to claim the book as its own, you will discover quite an aesthetic, literary experience. _The Painted Bird_ is literature of a higher caliber, and it deserves to be preserved and praised as such.
To note: I use the idea of the mythic hero with the intention of the connection being made to such works as Jospeh Campbell's _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_. The more I think about _The Painted Bird_, the more resonance I find between the journey of Kosinki's boy and the mythic journey as described by Campbell. Those energies go all the more to the symbolic and literary value of the work.
Also to note, it is worth getting the second edition of the book (the current edition) so as to have the Afterward, written a decade after the original publication. In my edition the Afterward comes first in the text. I would recommend not reading it until after you have finished the book. In truth, the afterward is mostly about the reception of the book, not the book itself. As such, it may create false ideas that might be brought into the book. However, once you have read the book, the Afterward easily slips into its rightful context.