Shortly after the beginning of WWII, a young Jewish boy is placed in hiding by his parents, with a peasant woman in the Polish countryside. When his guardian dies, the boy is left to wander from village to village, encountering horrific acts of brutality and depravity among the paranoid and xenophobic peasants.
I‘ve had Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird on my shelf for a while now, and finally got around to reading it. I had been avoiding it because of its reputation as a highly disturbing, depressing novel. Not that I’ve got anything against disturbing and depressing, but I was feeling kind of down recently, and didn’t really need a foot pushing my head down into the quicksand.
Anyway, I’m feeling much better now.
Read enough horror fiction, and you become inured to horror in fiction. You’ve bathed in the carnage and butchery and Unnameable Horrors for so long that, while you can still be disturbed and terrified, it’s harder to be shocked and repulsed. You’re like, “Oh, they’re skinning him alive while blowtorching his genitals? Yes, very horrifying. I am so nauseated. Please. No more.”
So, from an “extreme horror” fan’s point of view, The Painted Bird is a little underwhelming. Not to say that it isn’t a nonstop cavalcade of murder, mutilation, rape, sexual sadism, rape, and rape, but aside from one genuinely unsettling incestuous orgy involving a goat, the presentation looks a bit quaint to these jaded eyes. The novel works best when it depicts moments of mundane brutality — a jealous farmer carving out a young man’s eye with a soup spoon, or our boy protagonist being hung from hooks above a vicious dog — with frosty indifference.
The Painted Bird is a pitch-black picaresque — or perhaps more accurately an anti-picaresque — that follows our young narrator as he stumbles from one harrowing situation to another. With few exceptions, the characters he encounters are either ignorant, sadistic brutes or their ignorant, hapless victims. What thematic through-line there is has to do with the narrator’s search for meaning in this bleak world. Is God the key to survival? If not, then perhaps Satan? Atheism? Communism? Or to hell with all of that in favor of anarchic sociopathy?
These existential questions aren’t given enough reflection in the story to become very interesting. Each of the narrator’s philosophical paths are set up only so they can be bitterly demolished. Communism is the only world view that eventually gets the boy fired up for any length of time, but not for much more defined of a reason than that the Communists he meets aren’t, for the most part, complete assholes.
The Painted Bird is readable enough, but doesn’t add up to much more than a nihilistic wallow in man’s inhumanity to man. If you enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is very much in the same brutal family of “people suck, the end” stories that relentlessly hammer home the most cynical possible vision of human society.