Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski

Photo: hardcover from the book's Goodreads page

Oh. My. God.

There's really no other way to review it. What can you say? It's impossible for one little boy to have been through all this and to survive this, so I'm compelled to agree with the consensus that this is not autobiography, not even biography, and Kosinski was indeed a fraud for saying so.

But like most of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, so much of this could be true, especially (again like Frey's book) in character composite, that it feels true, rings true, and--understood as allegory--certainly reads true. No little boy could possibly be beaten this many times, so savagely, or have seen so much brutality and savagery, so many murders and rapes by every type of person...No little boy can live the life of a Hieronymous Bosch painting and survive it, physically or mentally.

And yet people did. As a mirror to the Holocaust, this rings remarkably and horrifyingly true. And people survived this brutal murder-and-rape life in the Middle Ages, too--Reading this was like reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, picked up and plopped into Eastern Europe, 1939-1945. Really, that's a good comparison: a lot of Bosch, a lot of the Holocaust and a lot of the brutal Middle Ages, all stirred together.

It doesn't matter to me who wrote this--and it's pretty clear, I guess, that Kosinski didn't. If he did, he wrote it in Polish and it was translated. It doesn't matter. It exists, and the writing is staggeringly uniform. There are maybe twelve lines of dialogue in all its pages. The sentences are simple and detached, with a smattering of social observance thrown in, especially when detailing the trains bringing the Holocaust's victims to the camps. Someone wrote it, and it's important that someone did. This is a book that serious readers should read--and don't feel guilty if you can't make your way through it all. It is brutal. But has someone lived like this? Yes. A great many, sadly. And a great many animals have lived like this, too.

It is as brutal a look at humanity as you will likely see. And it is not untrue in of itself, even if it was for Kosinski personally. It is unflinching and unsparing. It will make you grateful for your days, for your loved ones, for life itself. You will maybe be more empathetic. This book, like all great literature, could change your outlook of the world, of people. It may, it may not, but it could, and that's rare in literature, in movies, in any segment of real life. For this it should be read and reveled.

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