Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 867

The critical response to the publication in 1965 of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird has been overwhelmingly positive but at the same time, extremely volatile. Many critics favorably compare the harrowing intensity of this novel to works by Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. Parallels are also made to The Diary of Anne Frank. Yet, the novel's graphic violence and bleak vision of humanity disturb some readers. The most vocal criticism came from Eastern Europe, where the book was banned for several years.

Oleg Ivsky applauded the novel in the Library Journal, commenting, "No matter how exaggerated and tendentious the horrors may seem in retrospect (especially cumulatively)—they all ring true. The simple, direct prose is as timeless as folklore." Ivsky "highly recommends" the novel for "discriminating readers with cast-iron stomachs." Andrew Field in Book Week echoes Ivsky's assessment when he writes, "So awful...is this book that I can scarcely 'recommend' it to anyone, and yet, because there is enlightenment to be gained from its flame-dark pages, it deserves as wide a readership as possible." Field also praises the novel's style, even though he finds "isolated incidents in the book that are rather strained and archly described," citing the motif of the painted bird, which he claims appears too often. He comments that "the overall performance is marked by a sureness of emphasis and tone of voice that has high literary merit."

Critics like Irving Howe in Harper's, wrote that "finally one wonders whether there is in this book a numbing surplus of brutality." Kosinski responded to the attention over the book's violence in his Afterward to the second edition:

Whether the reviews praised or damned the novel, Western criticism of The Painted Bird always contained an undertone of uneasiness. Most American and British critics objected to my descriptions of the boy's experiences on the grounds that they dwelt too deeply on cruelty. Many tended to dismiss the author as well as the novel, claiming that I had exploited the horrors of war to satisfy my own peculiar imagination....In point of fact, almost none of those who chose to view the book as a historical novel bothered to refer to actual source materials. Personal accounts of survivors and official War documents were either unknown by or irrelevant to my critics.

Anne Halley, in her review for the Nation, praises the novel's themes. She writes:

[This] survivor's story...belongs to that 20th-century genre which teaches us that...human life, the cheapest thing there is, can be maintained and has been for centuries in the midst of chaos, brutality, organized and disorganized ill will....The various episodes, no doubt based on experience, seem to embody and play on recognizable folk-tale motifs, always with that "realistic" twist, or reversal, which shows that there is neither justice, nor reason, nor black or white magic to help one in extremity.

Kosinski suffered years of torment after the novel's publication. In an article for The American Spectator, John Corry notes that the novel was "the making of Jerzy Kosinski, just as it was his undoing." Corry explains that after the novel came out:

Warsaw had set out to hurt him. He was not an ordinary anti-Communist émigré Pole; he was a celebrated anti-Communist Pole, and so he had to be discredited. The Painted Bird, the propagandists said, slandered Poland. In fact, it did not, but since the novel was banned, who in Poland would know?

In his Afterward, Kosinski describes how the Polish government responded to The Painted Bird. Poland's state-controlled publications insisted that he had agreed to write the novel "for covert political purposes" as sanctioned by governmental authorities in America. Other Poles accused the book of being "a libelous documentary of life in identifiable communities during the Second World War." Some critics attacked him "for distorting native lore, for defaming the peasant character, and for reinforcing the propaganda weapons of the region's enemies." Kosinski was also criticized by anti-Communists, who claimed that he portrayed the Soviet soldiers in a positive light in order to justify Soviet influence in Eastern Europe.

The campaign to destroy Kosinski's name continued as accusations surfaced that he had employed ghostwriters; wrote the book for the CIA; and was part of a Zionist conspiracy. Cameron Northouse, in his article on Kosinski for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, explains,

since the book was completely distorted in the Communist press to depict it as an anti-Polish document that slandered the people of Kosinski's homeland, the local citizenry was aroused to violence. At one point, Kosinski's mother was defamed in the newspapers as the "mother of a renegade" and crowds were incited to attack her house.

Kosinski also suffered physical and verbal attacks, as he notes in his Afterward:

On several occasions I was accosted outside my apartment house or in my garage. Three or four times strangers recognized me on the street and offered hostile or insulting remarks. At a concert honoring a pianist born in my homeland, a covey of patriotic old ladies attacked me with their umbrellas, while screeching absurdly dated invectives.

Despite the controversy surrounding its publication, most scholars consider The Painted Bird to be one of the best works to emerge from World War II.

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