the painted bird: vignettes of ornithological & human horror

two words: perverse odyssey

first edition cover, 1965

I read the first half of The Painted Bird cold, before I had any details on Jerzy Kosinski. I understood there was an autobiographical element to the novel and was excited to get to know him through his words describing his ordeal during the holocaust. But with an increasing unwilling suspension of disbelief and an urge to call Adam and Jamie, I reevaluated the term TIME used to describe the novel – ‘controversial’. What exactly did they mean?

Mid-novel, I decided to look Kosinski up. I found a slew of negative press and this cumulative review. Turns out Kosinski may have been a hack, a fraud, a pervert, a liar, a social-climber, a plagiarist, non-Jewish, and never poor.

With suspicions (then some!) affirmed, I plunged into the second half of the novel searching for literary rather than historical merit…. I closed the novel wondering – how did The Painted Bird make TIME any Top 100?

To be fair, Kosinski starts off well. The Painted Bird opens with Marta’s death described by believably innocent and confused eyes. The central image of a painted bird being devoured by its own kind, and other ornithological allusion, is also quite stunning. It speaks to how eager we are to viciously annihilate even one of our own out of misplaced xenophobia. Ludmila’s brutal murder by fellow peasant women is the epitome of this imagery.

kosinski was as notorious for his lies as he was famous for his fiction

But then the novel spirals deeper and deeper into pointless and contrived accounts that appear less and less about insight into war and more a platform for perverse predilections. The Painted Bird devolves into vignettes of sexual abasement and horror described by a conveniently/inconveniently placed little boy, with bits of holocaust thrown in to legitimize it. It began to feel like a sick joke.

Kosinski had a knack for appropriating and exploiting tragedy – he did it with The Tate/Manson Murders, saying he was an invited guest the night of August 8, 1969, a claim Polanski denies. There’s also his vocal by-proxy battle with brain cancer à la his wife, where he fails to mention that she divorced him and wrote him out of her will before she died. And many other blatant and exploitative omissions and lies.

Whichever way you look at it, being a real, adjacent or imaginary holocaust survivor is not literary absolution, and The Painted Bird page after page morphs into trivial and artless treatment of a deadly serious subject.

I feel duped and defiled. Just the way he seemed to like it.

I was excited to read The Painted Bird, and unless Kosinski’s apparent hoax is part of an elaborate painted bird experiment – he the painted bird and me part of the mob flock that devours him – the novel is a huge disappointment and easily the worst book I’ve ever read.

the painted bird killed the music inside me

2 responses to “the painted bird: vignettes of ornithological & human horror

    • There’s one graphic scene in particular that plunged it into the abyss of ‘EVER’. I’ve already sold the book so can’t give you a page reference, but let’s say Tumnus was the off-spring.

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