The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg

It’s easy to see why Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird made him unpopular in Eastern Europe. A kid wanders through Poland during World War 2, and, suspected of being a gypsy, is abused by superstitious peasants. Every page hammers down the message of how stupid and brutal Eastern European peasants are. Who wouldn’t be offended?

It’s harder to understand why many reviewers thought the novel was semi-autobiographical. At one point the kid pushes a man who is trying to kill him down into an abandoned bunker, where he is eaten by rats. The rats swarm over the man, tearing his flesh apart, consuming him, until all that is left is a lone hand sticking up from the sea of rats.

That’s not a traumatic war memory. That’s a visual punchline in a self-mocking horror movie. There are many episodes like this, and I wonder if some of the novel’s reputation came from 1965 readers being more easily shocked, and mistaking their reactions for the discomfort one can get from a truly great novel. Me, I think of Evil Dead. I almost stopped reading, not because it’s too disgusting, but because I think Kosinski is trying to be serious here.

The second half is better. Kosinski ends the gore-fest, and gets to the point, which is to make the kid a sociopath who muses over why some people are strong, and others weak. Who is the more useful ally: God, Satan, Hitler or Stalin? The answer, he concludes, is no-one. Everyone stands alone, separated as by mountains.

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