The Painted Bird is arguably Jerzy Kosinski’s most controversial novel because of its unrelenting bleakness. The story of a young boy, probably Jewish, who, separated from his parents during the chaos of World War II, wanders alone among the villages of Eastern Europe, witnessing firsthand the brutality and depravity that characterized Europe during the war.
A Polish Jew, Kosinski, witnessed the German occupation of his homeland and, following its eventual liberation, its subjugation by Joseph Stalin and forced incorporation into the Soviet empire. In short, the country of his birth experienced nothing but misery during the author’s entire life (ironically, his 1991 suicide coincided with the end of the Cold War and dissolution of the Soviet Union).
Because of his experience being separated from his parents during the war and having to survive an orphan until war’s end, The Painted Bird is inarguably the novel that most closely reflects the author’s life. That, with occasional, short-lived exceptions, The Painted Bird is so unrelentingly bleak has to be accepted in the context of the life that shaped it. This, then, provides the novel’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. The book’s strengths lie in its depiction of a world experienced by the author: the war and the Holocaust.
The painted bird of the title is an allegory for the virulent racism that was prevalent throughout Europe. During the boy’s wanderings, he encounters a man who traps a large raven, paints its wings, and releases it back to the wild. As Kosinski describes the scene:
“As soon as it joined the flock a desperate battle began. The changeling was attacked from all sides. Black, red, green, blue feathers began to drop at our feet. The ravens ran amuck in the skies, and suddenly the painted raven plummeted to the freshly-plowed soil . . . Its eyes had been plucked out, and fresh blood streamed over its painted feathers. It made another attempt to flutter up from the sticky earth, but its strength was gone.”
This passage represents Kosinski’s efforts at conveying an understanding of the racism to which he and millions of others were subjected. The bird of the title has been violently rejected by its own flock simply because it looks different. Kosinski is drawing a parallel to the systematic murder of Jews and Roma simply because they looked different. When the boy witnesses Jews and Roma being transported to concentration camps and certain death, he observes the physical characteristics that set them apart from the Germans: their complexions and hair and eye color: “Wouldn’t it be easier to change people’s eyes and hair than to build big furnaces and then catch Jews and Gypsies to burn them?”
If its depiction of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust are the novel’s strengths, its weaknesses lie in the very extremes to which the author went in that same depiction. With very few exceptions, The Painted Bird shows mankind at its absolute worst. This is understandable given that World War II and the Holocaust can logically be considered mankind at its absolute worst. The endless murders, rapes, beatings, humiliations, however, left little room for what humanity did survive. Also, the metaphor of the painted bird is too much of an artificial construct inserted into the story in case the reader didn’t already get the point about the victimization of peoples on the basis of ethnicity, religion, etc.