Friday, September 16, 2011

The Painted Bird

I've not read Jerzy Kosinski before now. I was browsing books at the "Unoppressive Non- Imperialist Bargain Bookshop" on Carmine Street, when his 1965 novel The Painted Bird caught my eye. I liked the poetic title, and the idea that I could immerse myself in a tense story of a young boy's survival following being abandoned by his parents in World War II. Who doesn't want to read an inspiring yarn like that from time to time? The "gypsy or Jewish stray" as he's called, moves through villages that reviewers assumed were scattered throughout Poland. He moves through winters wearing nothing but scraps of rags and various pieces of animal hides, witnessing and being the victim of unimaginable cruelty. His keepers are many, and each more imaginatively cruel than the previous one. No sooner after being taken in by a random farmer at the insistence of a priest would the cruelty cycle begin again. The exception was Kasinski's Old Woman Sage archetype, who appears as several different characters in the book. Each time, she's knowledgable about homeopathic witchery (the childlike confidence he has in her time again is chilling, because in reality she makes potions and lotions with removed abscesses, animal parts, etc.). The Sages care for the boy, but the small comforts can never last as each one moves from one horrific fate to the next.

I put it down a few times, but kept going back, thinking that if I could finish it, the senselessness of the violence might come to an end and move into a field of philosophic reflection and human redemption, a la Victor Frankl. It just couldn't keep going in this way.

After moving through the first few chapters, I began to research Kosinski's history a bit. The only thing I'd been exposed to growing up was his film Being There, with Peter Sellers, which I barely remember but remember liking. His introduction to this edition of The Painted Bird had been odd; he basically defended the fact that it was meant to be a work of fiction, not autobiographical, and that he and his family had endured so much hatred following the publication that he'd had to move his mother to another town. He wrote a lot about how his wife was dying, and that was so off topic that it seemed like he was trying to garner his readers' sympathies before they even cracked the story.

It didn't take long to get through the first few grafs of his Wiki biography to realize he was exposed as a fraud, time and time again, and even considered a psychotic borderline personality. In his mini bio was an anecdote about his literary life of lingering at elegant dinner parties with book editors waxing on about his horrific youth and tales of survival during WW2.

Such realizations made me want to put the book down, because suddenly the stomach churning cruelty and abuse were formed not from his own history, but from his imagination. Finishing the book was an exercise of endurance on my part, but I wanted to finish it so I could find out if there was any redeeming aspect to humanity whatsoever for his suffering protagonist. What would I glean about survival and humanity after putting his book down? When would the relief come? At the midway point of the story, the boy becomes a mute, but regains his voice in the end, so at least there's that. I was glad to hear him utter sounds again, to literally come back to life again from his horrors, in the last pages. But I also felt like burning the book, literally setting it on fire and watching it turn to ash.

I felt that way after seeing the 1995 film Seven, too-- that it depicted such gratuitous horror that it seemed a waste of resources to put it into the world. The film wasn't created or shaped to make people act on good will or kindness; it seemed to me that it was irresponsibly put out into the world just to make money depicting senseless violence and sociopathic disconnect. Seven gruesome murders based on seven deadly sins; well, Kosinski trumps that with probably 7,000. It's no wonder to me that he could no longer tolerate his life and committed suicide in 1991.

1 comment:

  1. I read and enjoyed a lot of Kozinski but never read this one, his most famous. It's interesting that Kozinski didn't respond to the Village Voice's accusations that his fictionalized experiences weren't true enough. Some suggest that The Hermit of 69th Street, among other things a consideration of suicide and its notes, was his response, and perhaps his own extended suicide note. He was a gifted writer (your own desire to burn the book attests to his art's power in dealing with a horrific subject) whose talents too often seem overshadowed by his disgrace. That his imagination was employed in conjuring horrors that may not have been historical seems a fitting response to a period in history when the imaginations of many were yoked to innovations in cruelty, murder and arguably evil. It was a time when too many who lived sought, but failed to find, any redeeming aspect to humanity. Having read books & essays by criminals, murderers, forgers, con-men, so-called black magicians and fascists, I try to focus as much on the writing as I can. Kozinski, for all his faults, remains an incredible talent. Certainly life punished him more than enough for his transgressions, real or alleged, if one is looking for some sort of karmic balance. Only his voice remains.