For someone to sit down and write a novel they have to have a reason for doing so, be it to explore something in life that has troubled them, for financial gain or political motivations, for entertainment, or any number of reasons. A book does not just happen, at least some thought and effort goes into even the most current, vapid, ghost-written celebrity expose. And so what is the purpose of The Painted Bird? Why was this book written?What is its purpose?
In the afterword, Jerzy Kosiński goes into great detail to explain the point of his book and to defend his writing of it and the contents of its pages. He believes many people have misinterpreted his intentions and his words and that people with political motives have actively tried to harm him. He goes on to say that the terrors he writes about in his book are not even a fraction of the true events that went on in Eastern Europe during WW2. He implies he could have written an even more brutal, horrific, and savage description of what people did during that conflict. He believes he held back and others believe he went to far.
In the mini-series Band Of Brothers there is an episode which focuses on the medic of Easy Company. This medic, during his trip into town for rest and supplies, meets a young nurse who is treating the wounded and with whom he immediately forms a bond. Their relationship, though brief, is obviously deeper than an – infatuation they are two common souls who we can easily believe will spend the rest of their lives together. And she dies. And in that death, amid all the other deaths we have seen, the real tragedy of war is felt, the loss of someone who we cannot replace in our hearts and our lives, the loss of a unique and beautiful and important human being. A loss that is in part noble because of the work she was doing and also part pointless because of the whole reason why she would have to be there in the first place: a war.
I bring up this scene in Band of Brothers because that one scene, I believe, does a better job of showing us the tragedy of war than all the pages of Jerzy Kosiński’s book. No amount of the brutal descriptions of torture, and rape, and cruelty going on for pages and pages and chapters and hours of reading can capture just the single image of a nurse’s headscarf amid the rubble of a bombed church.
And so I have to put this book in the same category as Bastard Out Of Carolina, a disingenuous telling of a real tragedy, a book that explores real pain with dishonesty. Yes, every event Jerzy Kosiński writes about may have actually happened to any number of people during the war – I do not dispute the brutality he writes about, especially during a conflict which ultimately saw the extermination of millions of Jews and millions of others both during and then after the war in other countries. But what is disingenuous is the way he went about telling us this story.
When the book was first published it was believed to be basically a memoir, a true account of the author’s actual experiences. Later it came out the book was a work of fiction whose goal was only to explore the brutality of the war and that the author was only writing about what he had heard or been told or, perhaps, imagined.
Does it matter if the book is true or not? Is that an important distinction?
Jerzy Kosiński goes to great lengths to show cruelty, especially the cruelty done to the main character at the hands of simple and uneducated peasants. They beat him, they torture him, they rape each other, they engage in the most incestuous and animalistic behaviors. To be blunt, he makes them all look like animals. In his afterword he’s on the record as saying it was not his intention to be racist or discriminatory towards Eastern European peasants, that he was only showing what actually happened. And there is no denying that people who are superstitious, ignorant, fearful, oppressed, and uneducated allowed (or turned their backs to) the persecution of Jews and gypsies. History has shown, time and again, people of all races and cultures are more than capable of being tremendously cruel to each other, and the Eastern European peasants are no exception and their simple ignorance does not excuse them from terrible behavior.
But the detail Jerzy Kosiński goes into, the amount of savagery he writes about is so overwhelming, so gory, so awful that after a while it loses its potency and it just turns the very real human beings who are also Eastern European peasants into the most vile, wicked, and most horrible person’s on earth. Every time we meet a new peasant for the boy to interact with we just start to wonder what sort of savagery will be unleashed on the boy and us as a reader. We are so beaten down time after time with how horrible the main character will be treated we no longer see anyone here as human.
In a way, through all this hammering of brutality, we start to understand how people can begin to look on a whole other race of people as animals, as less than humans who can be easily loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps to be gassed. And if that was what the author was going for then I suppose he succeeded.
But he did so at the expense of turning every Eastern European peasant into the very thing he had been persecuted for. He only turned that hate and fear and ignorance back onto someone else. He solves nothing and he implies his own people have never been guilty of anything, that he belongs to a race of people who are only ever persecuted, but always righteous. Add in the line of the main character remembering his family had servants (class distinction) and it’s easy to believe the author was making a class judgment all around.
Now perhaps had the main character became a murderer, had he engaged in the most heinous evil himself, had he, unlike his fellow mute orphan friend, switched the railroad tracks and committed the crime himself, had he actually descended into the depths of cruelty, then maybe we would have been given at least a semblance of a character study of how all this hate and violence can turn a person to hate an violence.
Yet as a work of fiction (which is what Jerzy Kosiński insists this is), then we have to follow the rules of fiction and ask how much does the character change? Well, he changes very little. He’s been through a lot, but other than being withdrawn and mistrustful, he’s a paper thin character (surrounded by stereotypes) who is a victim from start to finish, a righteous whipping post at the hands of cruel, ignorant savages. His character teaches us nothing and he shows us nothing insightful.
Personally I think Jerzy Kosiński took advantage of many of the horrific true accounts from the war and thought he could turn them into a sensationalist book that would sell a lot of copies because of the sheer tremendous amount of savage brutality he could describe. I could never shake the feeling he reveled in the gory details and that he allowed his imagination to run with a morbid frenzy all the way across Eastern Europe. I never felt like I believed all this cruelty happened to just one little boy. Could it have happened to many different people cumulatively? No doubt, unfortunately. People can be awfully cruel. But for this one boy to have gone through trial after terrible trial, to have been through all he went through is just too much to accept in a work of fiction.
Had the book been true, well, then the book would have been genuine and maybe we would have learned something different because, after all, had it really happened to Jerzy Kosiński, then he would have had something different to say and think about those events because he would have lived through them. But not having lived through them means he can’t actually know how that savage cruelty can actually effect a person.
He can’t know what the real horror the real people who suffered during WW2 actually went through, and it’s those people, the Jews, and the gypsies, and all the others who he does a disservice to. He can’t know their agony and he can’t teach it to us. Only an actual survivor who actually went through those events could know that. And my instinct tells me their stories, though also cruel, would have more moments similar to the nurse in Band Of Brothers: the personal losses, than anything the author here writes about.
And let’s not let him off the hook by saying since it’s just a work of fiction that none of this matters, that he has no responsibility to the truth, that he’s all within his rights to turn an entire race and population of Eastern European peasants into the most base savages just for morbid entertainment sake. Sure, maybe in one hundred years a person could write a book like this and not have it reflect at all on the people in it, but to write this book just 20 years after the war when it is still fresh means he has to have known that even if the book had been called “The Totally Made Up Fictitious Account of Horrible Things That Did In No Way Happen To Me, The Author”, it would still have affected people’s perceptions of the people in the book because there really are Eastern European peasants. You can’t have it both ways. You just can’t write a book that claims to be a tool to show people who horrible the war was and then also say it’s all made up and the bad people in it are not actually bad people.
So, to sum up, the book is disingenuous. It teaches us nothing because it is not true and since it is a work of fiction it has to be held to the standards of fiction. And those standards show us the book is just an endless series of brutalisms over and over and with paper-thin characters who do not change and that gives us hardly any insight into the human character the author hopes to explore.
This is a bad book. The people who committed the crimes against the Jews and gypsies and all the others were human beings, not some vision of Dante’s Infernal Monsters. But the truth is human beings did this to other human beings. The actual brutality Jerzy Kosiński tells us that really happened to people during this period in history is just a set piece for paper monsters and it lets the truly awful people who committed these crimes off the moral hook, so-to-speak, by turning them into something that is not obligated to be moral. We have to accept that human beings are cruel, that the worst crimes in our society are committed by people just like us. To soften the blow, to shift the blame by saying these people are not actually human in some vapid attempt to comfort ourselves, to keep us from looking into the darkness of our hearts, means these crimes will continue to happen because they will never be addressed and understood. If we keep blaming monsters for our own actions, if we refuse to accept responsibility, then we are doomed as a species.