The Painted Bird  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Painted Bird is a 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński that describes World War II as seen by a boy, considered a "Gypsy or Jewish stray," wandering about small villages scattered around an unspecified country in Eastern Europe. The story was originally introduced by Kosiński as autobiographical. It was only upon its publication by Houghton Mifflin that he quietly refrained from making such claims any further. Assumed by reviewers to be a memoir of a Jewish survivor and witness to the Holocaust telling the supposed true story of his search for the deported family, the book received enthusiastic reviews. However, within two decades it was discovered that the story was not only fictional, but also plagiarized from popular books written in the Polish language, largely unknown to English readers.

It is almost certain that Kosiński did not write the novel himself since his command of English was too limited around the time the novel was written. In a series of articles in newspapers and books that followed, it was revealed that Kosiński engaged in wilful deception in order to corroborate the claim of being separated from his family, and that he did not share any of the boy's experiences. Unlike the main character of the novel, Kosiński spent the times of war hidden by a Polish Catholic family who confirmed that his living conditions were excellent; he even had a female servant to look after his needs.

Major themes

The book describes the wandering boy's encounters with peasants engaged in all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality and rape, and in other forms of extreme violence exciting lust. The book title was drawn from an incident in the story. The boy, while in the company of a professional bird catcher, observes how the man took one of his captured birds and painted it several colors. Then he released the bird to fly in search of a flock of its kin, but when the painted bird came upon the flock, they saw it as an intruder and viciously attacked the bird until it fell from the sky.

The plot

The Painted Bird is told from the perspective of a young boy during World War II. He is a Jewish stray struggling to live during this chaotic period, although Kosiński's narrator denies being Jewish. The story begins by introducing the war and linking it with the boy. The young boy's parents are hiding from the Germans, and he lives in a village with an elderly woman. When the woman dies, he is left to care for himself. From here, he journeys to another village where local townspeople turn him over to the Germans. He escapes and travels to another village, where he sees Jews and Gypsies headed to concentration camps. It is here that Kosiński adds some social commentary, describing the boy's belief that to have fair hair and blue eyes is to be favored by God. Kosiński sums up a Bosch-like world of harrowing excess where senseless violence and untempered hatred are the norm. The boy travels from village to village in Eastern Europe. Throughout the rest of the book, the boy endures various kinds of violence and cruelty. He wanders alone from one village to another, sometimes hounded and tortured, only rarely sheltered and cared for. He becomes an altar boy, and he is exposed to father-daughter incest. After being thrown into a manure pit, he becomes mute. Only at the end of the novel does he become reunited with his parents and regain his speech.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Painted Bird" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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