History--Historical Analysis of Jerzy Kosinski\'s The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird
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An obscure village in Poland, sheltered from ideas and
industrialization, seemed a safe place to store oneıs most precious
valuable: a 6-year-old boy. Or so it seemed to the parents who
abandoned their only son to protect him from the Nazis in the
beginning of Jerzy Kosinskiıs provocative 1965 novel The Painted Bird.
After his guardian Marta dies and her decaying corpse and hut are
accidentally engulfed in flames, the innocent young dark-haired,
dark-eyed outcast is obliged to trek from village to village in search
of food, shelter, and companionship. Beaten and caressed, chastised
and ignored, the unnamed protagonist survives the abuse inflicted by
men, women, children and beasts to be reclaimed by his parents 7 years
later--a cold, indifferent, and callous individual.
The protagonistıs experiences and observations demonstrate that the
Holocaust was far too encompassing to be contained within the capsule
of Germany with its sordid concentration camps and sociopolitical
upheaval. Even remote and ³backward² villages of Poland were exposed
and sucked into the maelstrom of conflict. The significance of this
point is that it leads to another logical progression: Reaching
further than the Polish villages of 1939, the novelıs implications
extend to all of us. Not only did Hitlerıs stain seep into even the
smallest crannies of the world at that time, it also spread beyond
limits of time and culture. Modern readers, likewise, are implicated
because of our humanity. The conscientious reader feels a sense of
shame at what we, as humans, are capable of through our cultural
mentalities. That is one of the more profound aspects of Kosinskiıs
work.
It is this sense of connectedness between cultures, people, and ideas
that runs through the book continuously. While the ³backward²
nonindustrialized villages of Poland seem at first glance to contrast
sharply with ³civilized² Nazi Germany, Kosinski shows that the two
were actually linked by arteries of brutality and bigotry. Both
cultures used some form of religious ideology to enforce a doctrine of
hate upon selected groups whom they perceived to be inferior.
Totalitarian rhetoric and Nietzschian existentialism replace a hybrid
of Catholicism, which in turn replaces medieval superstition as the
protagonist is carried from the innards of village life to the heart
of totalitarian power.
In the first several chapters of the novel the little protagonist is
firmly convinced that demons and devils are part of the tangible,
physical world. He actually sees them. They are not mythological
imaginings confined to a fuzzy spiritual world. They are real, and he
believes the villagersı insistences that he is possessed by them. The
peasants use these superstitious beliefs to enforce a doctrine of hate
upon the boy. Even their dogs seem to believe in this credo, chasing,
biting, and barking at him as if a viciousness towards dark-haired
boys is programmed into their genetic makeup.
The text of the villagersı behavior reads like a gruesome car
accident on the side of the road at which one cannot help but crane
oneıs neck. It is both repulsive and compelling; one reads in a state
of disbelief and horror. The cruelty, moreover, isnıt limited to Jews
and Gypsies. Anyone getting in the way is targeted. The rule of weak
over strong prevails and justifies any actions taken against those
unfortunate enough to incite anger.
A stirring example of this phenomenon is when the protagonist
witnesses a jealous miller gouging out the eyes of his wifeıs ³lust
interest,² an otherwise innocuous 14-year-old plowboy whose only sin
was in staring too fixedly at a womanıs bosom:

³And with a rapid movement such as women used to gouge out the rotten
spots while peeling potatoes, he plunged the spoon into one of the
boyıs eyes and twisted it.
³The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and
rolled down the millerıs hand onto the floor. The plowboy howled and
shrieked, but the millerıs hold kept him pinned against the wall.
Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang
out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boyıs cheek as if
uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto
the floor.²

The peasantsı behavior demonstrates that