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In fear of Nazi reprisals, the parents of a six-year-old boy send the youngster to a distant village. The parents lose touch with the man who had placed the child in the village, and when the boy’s foster mother dies, the young boy, left on his own, begins a series of travels from village to village. Considered to be either a Jew or a Roma (Gypsy) because of his dark hair and olive skin, the boy is treated horribly by the brutal and ignorant peasants he meets in his travels.

The young boy first lives in the hut of Marta, a disabled and superstitious old woman. When she dies of natural causes, the boy accidentally burns down her house. He is saved from villagers, who want to kill him, by Olga, a woman called “the Wise” for her knowledge of folk medicine. After being tossed into the river by the villagers and carried downstream on an inflated catfish bladder, the young boy lives with a miller and his wife, and witnesses a scene of unspeakable brutality. Jealous of a young farmhand’s attraction to his wife, the miller gouges out his eyes with a spoon. The boy runs away and finds refuge with Lekh, who traps and sells birds, and who is in love with Ludmila. When villagers kill Ludmila, Lekh is heartbroken, and the young boy is forced to flee again.

The boy next stays with a carpenter and his wife who are afraid that the boy’s black hair will attract lightning to their farm. Whenever there is as storm, the carpenter drags the boy out to a field and chains him to a heavy harness. When the carpenter threatens to kill him, the boy leads him to an abandoned bunker and pushes him into a sea of rats. Next, the young boy stays with a blacksmith who is helping the partisans; when the blacksmith is killed, the boy is turned over to German soldiers, but the one charged with his execution lets him escape into the woods. The young boy finds a horse with a broken leg and returns it to a farmer, who briefly shelters the boy, but he is forced to escape again when he witnesses a murder at a wedding celebration.

The terror is unrelenting. The boy is now staying with a giant farmer and first witnesses the trains carrying Jews to the death camps. A Jewish girl is found along the tracks. She is kept at the house next door, and the boy witnesses her gang rape and murder. When Germans search the village for more Jews, he flees, but is captured and given to an old priest, who delivers him to Garbos, a sadistic farmer with a huge and vicious dog named Judas. Garbos beats the boy daily and then hangs him from two hooks over Judas, hoping that he will fall and be killed by the dog. Garbos is afraid of killing the boy himself, for religious reasons. Meanwhile, the boy had been taking religious instruction from the old priest, but one day, as an acolyte, he trips and drops the missal during a service. The enraged congregation throws the boy into a large manure pit. At this point, the boy loses his voice.

The boy escapes again and lives with another cruel farmer named Makar and his family. The daughter, Ewka, initiates the boy into sex—what he thought was love. He witnesses Makar forcing the girl into sexual acts with her brother and a goat, and loses his love for Ewka. He escapes on skates he had made, but a gang of...

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boys captures him and throws him into a hole in the frozen river. He is saved by a woman named Labina, but she dies. The eastern front of the war is pushing closer, and the boy witnesses another gruesome scene. A band of Kalmuks—mostly Soviet deserters aligned with the Germans—takes over a village and wantonly rapes and slaughters its inhabitants. The boy’s first moment of stability comes when the advancing Soviet army captures and executes the Kalmuks and adopts the boy. He becomes a kind of mascot to Gavrila, the political officer of the regiment, and Mitka, a crack sniper. Gavrila teaches the boy to read and explains socialism to him, while Mitka teaches the boy revenge. When several Soviet soldiers are killed by drunken villagers, Mitka enacts his own vengeance with his high-powered rifle.

World War II ends, and the boy reluctantly leaves his Russian friends to be placed in an orphanage in the city from which he was first exiled. Six years pass; the boy is now twelve years old. The city has been damaged in the war, but not more severely than the children in the orphanages. The narrator befriends another orphan named the Silent One, and together they wander the city. When the Silent One sees the boy humiliated by a peasant merchant, he causes a terrible train wreck in a failed attempt to kill the man.

The boy is finally located by his parents, but he is not ready for the reconciliation, and he is still unable to speak. He is taken to the mountains for his health, and he learns to ski. He wakes up in a hospital room after a skiing accident, and picks up the phone and begins to speak. His speech convinces him that he is alive, and able to communicate.


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Although Kosinski published two books before The Painted Bird, his achievement as a writer centers around this book. The unnamed boy of The Painted Bird narrates a story that is simultaneously a fable of the Holocaust and an imaginative record of the shaping forces of Kosinski’s early life—separation from his parents, wandering through Polish villages hostile to Jews and gypsies, dodging German soldiers, and eventually being rescued by Soviet soldiers and placed in a postwar orphanage.

Throughout the years of his abandonment, the boy is bereft of every form of protection except his own initiative, cunning, and duplicity. The novel charts the boy’s survival; it also epitomizes Kosinski’s values, which he demonstrated in all of his subsequent novels, namely, that the individual is alone, surrounded by systems of persecution and oppression, whether Nazi soldiers rounding up Jews in Poland for extermination or communist thought police monitoring helpless Polish or Russian citizens. Whatever the source of oppression, The Painted Bird (and Kosinski’s many novels after it) asserts that the duty of the individual is to seize the necessary power that would turn would-be persecutors into victims. Unless victimization is actively resisted, the individual will succumb and become a victim, and the surest way to avoid victimization is to become an oppressor.

The boy is beaten by Polish peasants, pushed into an ice-covered pond by cruel boys, forced to hang from a beam over a vicious dog, and tossed into an open cesspool and left to drown. His torment renders him a mute; he survives through craft, deception, and the ability to assume the role of victimizer. The boy pulls a murderous peasant into a pit full of starving rats, sets fire to a barn, and sabotages a train full of peasants.

Taught by Gavrila to read and write, the boy marvels at his discovery of the power of words: “Books impressed me tremendously. From their simple printed pages one could conjure up a world as real as that grasped by the senses. Furthermore, the world of books, like meat in cans, was somehow richer and more flavorful than the everyday variety.” For the boy, literature is spicier than ordinary life, its flavor always present, sealed away for the reader’s special nourishment. So it is with Kosinski, turning from one kind of writing—the sociological criticism of the Novak books—to the imaginative power of a child narrating an experience so horrifying that he is sometimes unaware of the full horror, only of the grim lessons for survival that are there for the learning.

The boy, for example, watches a bird catcher, Lekh, paint a captured bird in gaudy colors and then release it. “We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in a fierce attack. . . . When we finally found the painted bird it was usually dead.” The boy learns quickly the lesson: Only his own aggressive initiative will prevent him from being turned into a victim, a painted bird pecked to death by his own kind for being different.

The boy at the end of the novel is nearly an adult. He savors his newly restored speech as though it is a prized captive, testing his voice over and over to make sure, as he says, that “it did not intend to escape.” The boy’s recovery of his voice is also a model of Kosinski’s discovery of his own powers as a writer.

The critical response to The Painted Bird was overwhelmingly positive, in spite of the painful nature of the narration. The extraordinary power of the boy’s narrative, with its combination of childlike awareness and lyric grace, seemed to many critics to signal a new and original voice in American literature. It has remained Kosinski’s most powerful and popular novel.