.. sts kindly mentor and role model, Mitka–a grandfather figure–calmly fires a high powered machine gun at a distant villager who is sleepily stretching his arms in the sunlight-strewn hours of early morning. The admiring protagonist is amazed. He understands that Mitkas action is justified because he is superior, a member of the Party. Revenge is justified.
We see from this that cruelty still exists: it has simply changed form. What ties the villagers superstitions together with totalitarianism is best stated in the prologue of The Painted Bird: The only law [in the villages] was the traditional right of the stronger and wealthier over the weaker and poorer. . One cant help but question the progress of the protagonists moral character at the conclusion of the novel. He is cruel and indifferent to other peoples suffering. Even as his parents finally come for him, he breaks the fingers of his newly adopted four year old brother without feeling the least bit of sympathy or remorse for his action. Clearly, his philosophy has become a kind of social Darwinism: eat or be eaten. Survival of the fittest.
What makes this book so complex is that no morals seem to be propounded. The reader, along with the protagonist, is left sprawling on a gigantic icy slab of chaotic relativism, his moral knees knocked out from under him. He must rely on others to teach him, but everyone has something different to tell him. We find that cruelty is made understandable, love is perverted. Even sex is reduced to the basest elements: animals copulating are no more base, no more beautiful than humans.
There is no distinction between man and beast. The two, in fact, are often fused together and/or confused, each taking on the qualities of the other. In a Never Ending Storyish kind of way, the reader often finds him/herself transplanted into the innocent mind and young helpless body of the protagonist: through his suffering, his joys, his bitterness and ambivalence. It is this transplantation that makes the book so difficult to endure, and so irresistibly lucid and compelling. I felt terrible and sad, angry at the world and at the cruelty that one human being will do to another.
I found myself questioning the meaning of things right along with the protagonist. Kosinski achieves the difficult task of inspiring sympathy without thrusting dogmatic ideals into the readers head. It is understandable to take a depressing view of the world from the circumstances presented in the novel. Reality is turned upside down and inside out, its guts laid bare for all to see, and finally casually gotten used to and embraced by the main character. One critic puts forth this nihilistic interpretation of the Painted Bird. Poore states in his review: [The protagonist] grew in his bitter wisdom immeasurably. The blows he could not escape he endured.
These were the cost-sheets of survival in a senselessly brutal world. And when his turn came to take some unfair advantage, he took it. That, Mr. Kosinski seems to be telling us, is how things are in our world. People who are treated unjustly do not invariably treat others justly. People who are discriminated against in turn may be found discriminating against others.
Unlike a Stephen King novel, however, the book avoids being cast into the genre of cheap horror thrills because at the same time it creates a deep sense of beauty and social responsibility while paradoxically indicting the reader as being not much different than the murderous villagers. One critic writes of this phenomenon by ascribing to Kosinski the ability to create open-ended symbols which achieve the difficult effect of mirroring whatever attitudes the reader brings into the book. That, he explains, is why people have such differing views on the novel, ranging from horror filled to awe-inspired. This critic went on to say that, because each viewer makes the work his/her own, he/she therefore is held accountable to his/her own interpretation of the work. He states, For them, in fact, these texts become a test of courage–whether or not they can recognize themselves as not only the victims of language but also as the murderers.
Several other critics emphasized the books concentration on grim and grotesque realities. Bauke repeatedly stresses the authors mastery over painting the black tones of the protagonists harsh existence. It is a book of terrifying impact, replete with scenes of sadism rarely matched in contemporary writing, he writes. Mr. Kosinski evokes with the grim precision of a dream a world of Gothic monstrosities. While suffering and cruelty are, indeed, major recurring themes throughout the book, beauty in its purity and innocence is also depicted generously and with great texture.
Sometimes the beauty is even interwoven with what many would otherwise see as ugly. This is evident in the protagonists first guardian, Marta. Marta is an ambivalent figure, at best. She is ugly, foul smelling, and often ignorant of the protagonists suffering. On the other hand, she occasionally expresses an endearing sort of sentimentality toward him, raking her long scraggly nails along his head affectionately.
She also attempts to heal him when he is ill, mixing vile treatments for him to drink such as the juice of a squeezed onion, the bile of a billygoat or rabbit, and a dash of raw vodka. Despite her odd, vomit-inducing ways, the reader still gets a sense of her dedication: she cares. The Painted Birds historical contributions lie not in the realm of factual, unbiased, detail-laden information, but in giving us a new way of thinking about the facts that we already have. Most history books tend to focus only on the external aspects of Hitlers Nazi partys rise to power, focusing on each country as if it was an entity of itself, individualizing the nations as if they were so many bickering ten-year-olds in the playground of the world. Few books focus on the internal orders of such countries as Poland. Peasants played a major role in ethnic extermination as well by condoning, and often perpetuating, Hitlers hate. More than that, however, the books slow panorama of superstition, Catholicism, and existentialism give us a three-dimensional understanding of all the myriad of ideas that were floating around at that time. We understand them from the mind of a child, we apply them to the experiences we see him having. And if we closely examine them, well find that such ideas are still in the air today–that it is possible for something like the Holocaust to happen again if circumstances are arranged just so. Bosnia, for example, resounds with the echo of the Nazis boots. One of the greatest aspects of fiction is that, in many senses, it is always alive.
It changes just as history and the people who write it change. As each generation comes of age, they are able to write history–and also fiction–according to their cultural values and beliefs. The beauty of Kosinskis work is that he allows us to do this. Through his loosely constructed symbolism, readers can continually apply his fiction to modern interpretations. At the same time, however, Kosinski holds us accountable through his graphic, disturbing realistic depiction of what humans are capable of and have, in fact, done.
Perhaps if enough people are touched, they can, indeed, prevent scenes like these from occurring again. In this sense, Kosinskis work is a gift to humanity. It is a gift to the future.