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4.3 out of 5 stars
4.3 out of 5 stars

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`The Painted Bird' was first published by Jerzy Kosiñski in 1965, and revised in 1976. It is a fictional account of the personal experiences of a boy aged six who could be Jewish or might be a Gypsy taking refuge in Eastern Europe during World War II. It is a fictional account filled with hate for Polish peasantry and packed with excruciating, horrifying detail of rape, murder, bestiality and torture.

'The Painted Bird' depicts a journey through a very brutal and brutalising hell. There are no safe places, really, for this boy. He may have escaped with his life but he can never escape his experiences.

There are good reasons to not like this book: it is not, as has been thought, an autobiographical account of Kosiñski's own experiences. Additionally it relies on the proximity of the Holocaust to intensify its own horror; it demonises Polish peasantry as both cruel and backward; and it wallows in violence. But for all of that, it has its own haunting power.

I've first read this novel at least 20 years ago and recently revisited it. I do not like the graphic, seemingly unending violence. The point is made and reiterated: man's inhumanity to man takes many forms and vulnerability is often relative rather than absolute. Did Kosiñski really regard the world as being beyond redemption? Is that the question he was posing in this novel? Is that why he committed suicide in 1991? Did he write this novel to give voice to his own despair as a consequence of the events of World War II? For me this novel raises far more questions than it answers. And some of those questions about the author and his intent colour the way I read this novel. I cannot `hate' it: it is far too well written for that. I cannot `love' it: it is far too ugly and there are far too many questions unanswered. Instead, I `like' it in an uneasy sort of way because it makes me wonder about the world.

I won't need to read it again.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 1 December 2002
My byline refers not only to the fact that both Conrad and Kosinski were Polish authors writing in English. There are also similarities in Marlowe's journey into the darkness of the Congo and Kosinski's young narrators' voyage through the surreal landscape of wartime Eastern Europe.
Both investigate the darker regions of the human psyche. Both are the antithesis of a "picaresque" novel. Both are told from the point-of-view of a relatively innocent narrator, whose original naivete is transformed by the scenes he witnesses into an understanding of the "horror" and a comprehension of man's capacity for evil.
I read The Painted Bird over 30 years ago and many of its images still remain vivid in my imagination. I will never forget the couple caught copulating (you'll have to read Kosinski's description yourself - I'm not going to go there) and the boy-narrator's harrowing account of being thrown into a pit of excrement. Some reviews I've come across state that the book is pornographic. Far from it. The sex depicted is hardly meant to arouse. Kosinski's later work might have fallen into that category (he did a lot of short-story writing for Playboy and Penthouse), but this is far too brutal a work to be anywhere near titillating.
If you would like to take a harrowing walk into the heart of darkness, and are equipped to handle visions of one of the most depraved landscapes you are likely to encounter in literature, then this book's for you.
Kosinski himself, before his suicide, had come under attack for inventing a lot of stories about his past. It turns out that during WWII, rather than suffering the deprivations and persecution he had earlier claimed, he passed the duration of the war in middle class comfort. His personal fabrications should not influence a reader's attitude when approaching this book however. He captures the Goyaesque horror of war brilliantly and it is, after all, a work of fiction, to be judged on its own merits.
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If ever you thought there wre limits to human cruelty and depravity, all you need do is read this book. It is the closest thing to a tour of hell that the 20C could provide.

The story centers around a sensitive and intelligent child, who was left in the hands of a caretaker in the countryside during WWII. When the caretaker dies suddenly, the child is left to fend for himself in the Polish countryside, where the population is superstitious and poverty stricken. He lived through a succession of horrors, including beatings, exposure to sex, and threats to his life. He survives, of course, and makes extremely interesting observations with the clarity - and peculiar warp - of a child. He also becomes as cruel as his tormentors, but still reachable and able to grow. It is a glimpse of what that war was like.

This makes Painted Bird a brilliant novel, undoubtedly Kozinski's best though also his first. It is a tradegy that Kosinski lied about his past, perhaps to market the book and also to create a myth about himself, saying that this was autobiographical when in fact he had spent the war in relative comfort with his parents. When the truth became known, he committed suicide. But that does not diminish the magnitude of his acheivement here.
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on 17 April 2000
This savagery is beautiful and compelling, twisting humanity on numbingly broken limbs. This is not a pleasant read but treads on the senses defining a defiled life but not breaking the soul. Not many novels will be able to lay claim to haunting minds eternally, this however is one that can.
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on 11 November 2016
I had regularly heard about this 'shocking' book and decided to give it a go myself.
Be warned - it very explicitly details horrific incidents, whether true or not, that are all too easy to dwell on after reading. Very unpleasant. I also found it to be poorly written. It just goes from one brutal instance to the next with little context behind it, just many excuses made and off the story goes again. I wonder how this ever got published in the first place. I understand that curiosity will get the better of a lot of us, and this certainly lives up to it's violent hype, but it is not a classic nor is it relevant or really worth reading. The general truth behind it is questionable and I would worry for those who choose to see it as a literary standout. There are much better 'historical' books out there that don't attempt to sicken it's reader with each chapter.
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on 12 June 2007
Kosinski's celebrated book `The Painted Bird' has been the cause of much controversy since its original publication in 1965. The story is one of the isolation and abandonment of an un-named child. The narrative, written in the first person, takes place in an unspecified Eastern European country or countries during the Second World War. Kosinski takes this combination of circumstances to tell a story of the utmost brutality and cruelty.

And this story is brutal and cruel indeed. Through the eyes of this abandoned child are portrayed events such as murder, rape, dismemberment, torture and bestiality. The child himself is repeatedly beaten, tortured, starved, tormented and thrown in a pit of excrement. Psychologically it is no surprise that his view of the world is confused and he looses his ability to speak. Kosinski backdrops these events with detailed accounts of the magic and folklore of the peasants that occupy the various areas in which the story takes place.

Politically, Kosinski has been criticised for his portrayal of the Red Army and the positive effects that Soviet philosophy has on his child hero. The book is however, I feel, more a survival chronicle of an individual who is fighting against huge odds. If the reader combines this novel with Slawomir Rawisz `The Long Walk' it will at least go some way to balance the portrayal of the Soviet Union in this period, as another individual fights for his unlikely survival.

The protagonists of both books survive however, and it is within this framework that they should ultimately be seen. The importance of stories such as these is that whilst the details are harrowing and as brutal as anything that you might have ever read, the ending is one of an ultimately uplifting nature.
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on 11 April 2000
When The Painted Bird was first released its author was hounded on one side by fellow Poles criticising him for playing down the atrocities and on the other side by governments and fanatics who said he had exaggerated them. The book itself, whether autobiographical or merely a fable, undoubtedly contains a strong thread of fact and truth. The cruel world of the Eastern European villages seen through the eyes of a small boy as he drifts between them, sent by his parents to another home where they hoped he would be protected from the Nazis, is by turns shocking, revolting and saddening. The aggression the boy experiences universally from people because of his looks and the scenes of abuse and cruelty he observes to others and between the villagers themselves makes it difficult to see how anyone can keep faith in the basic goodness of human nature.
A disturbing yet curiously gripping read, The Painted Bird is a tale that had to be told.
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on 6 July 2013
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on 6 April 2015
This book is a lie, and a cruel one at that.
The author lived with his parents throughout the war, protected by the non-jews around him, even though they knew the treatment they would receive if caught doing so. This is violent pornography, from the mind of a twisted man. There is a great deal of sexual torture described, and the reader should be warned, it conjures images and events that stick in the mind long after the book has been put away. Please don't think it's necessary to read fictional torture to 'understand' what real people suffered during WWII, it's really not. There were real events, and some of these are available to read about, but this isn't in that camp. It's fiction, from the mind of someone who clearly has issues. See Norman G Finklestein' s The Holocaust Industry for the warped propaganda this book has famously become part of.
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on 3 April 2011
I couldn't decide whether to give this book 1 star, or 5 stars. The images this book conjured up still haunt me.
An absolutely gruesome horrific book, powerfully and brilliantly written. I grasped the concept of genocide more intensely from this book than any of the other material. I felt the pure evil and horror of it on a gut level, not just an intellectual level. Not for the faint of heart. Read it at your own risk!
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