The Painted Bird has emerged as one of the most powerful novels about World War II and about the Holocaust. Since it only obliquely deals with both events, the novel is a kind of allegory for the senseless cruelty and brutality of any war. Jerzy Kosinski claimed, falsely, that the novel was based on his own experiences. Kosinski was not averse to creating fiction in more than one realm; he was candid about this practice. The point of Kosinski’s claim, it may be argued, is that the book’s unspeakable brutalities are realistic—indeed, they are much less than what happened.
Characterization is notably thin in The Painted Bird, and even the narrator is two-dimensional. The scenes that he narrates are, however, often overwhelming, and the power of the novel comes in large part from its simple language and imagery. The point of view and sentence structure are remarkably simple. (Kosinski once claimed that he learned English writing the novel, which may explain some of its directness.) Such simple language only makes the horror greater: There is no complex linguistic shield that protects readers from the violence. What makes the events of the narrative even starker and more horrible is that there is no adult moral perspective to condemn the primitive or animalistic behavior of the characters. The narrator is a young boy with little understanding of what is happening to him, and Kosinski does not provide readers with an intermediary.
At one level, this short, episodic novel is an allegory. Kosinski has written that the novel is a fairy tale experienced by a child rather than told to him, and this is an apt description. Each incident in The Painted Bird can be considered as a stepping stone in an allegorical bildungsroman, or novel of...
(The entire section is 730 words.)