Monday, November 21, 2011

#48 - "The Painted Bird" by Jerzy Kosinski

In my previous post I said that each chapter of The Painted Bird seemed to start out in relative calm, before it 'crescendos into a roar of horror and tragedy,' which could also be said of the entire book, as each chapter seemed to be more horrific than the previous.  This was reading my 48th novel from Time's list, riding an emotional roller coaster of events so devastating, I can hardly describe them.

A small boy, unnamed and presumably Polish, roams the countryside from town to town, staying with whoever will take him in, and does whatever he can to survive.  He encounters discrimination because of his dark hair and 'black eyes' and suffers at the hands of his landlords, as they beat, torture and humiliate him.  But his nightmare isn't just his personal experience, it is also the things he witnesses; rape, murder and genocide.

I found the protagonist to be so compelling, partly from his innocence but mostly from his ignorance.  He is always surrounded by rural peasants who do anything to survive, German soldiers who are far from home waging a war, as well as Red Army soldiers who are half-starving and battle-tired, ready to take whatever they can from each village they pass.  His entire life is nothing but misery, but he has accepted his lot in life.  I was almost outraged that someone could accept such difficult circumstances, but slowly realized that having never seen anybody living in any kind of comfort, he was completely unaware that a better life existed, and thus unable to hope for anything better.

It's hard to believe such a situation could ever exist, but yet it was a reality for so many millions of people not that long ago.  Even as the book progresses, and the Germans are eventually pushed back, the people's misery only continues with the arrival of the Red Army, who's soldiers rape and pillage every place they come across.  For the people of Eastern Europe, life was a choice between two evils, without any real hope.  Perhaps it is this that allows them to be so blind to the things happening around them, and to accept as normal what you and I would consider appalling.

Despite the horrific events Kosinski depicts, I found I quite enjoyed reading The Painted Bird.  Many books of a similar nature tend to get bogged down in a very complex prose, seeking to use metaphor and simile to represent less comfortable scenes.  Kosinski more or less sticks to the point using, for lack of a better word, frank descriptions; something that can make the story easier to follow, as well as more horrifying.

As Kosinski was born in Poland, I can only assume English was his second language. This means he joins Vladamir Nabokov as writers who have written books in their second language, that made The List. I am fascinated by somebody who could do this. While I may speak it fluently, I'd have trouble writing a board book in French.

Despite being written by a native son, this book was banned in Poland for 23 years, for its depiction of Polish peasants during the war as a cruel and harsh people.  I believe people took it too literally, forgetting it was a work of fiction, even if some of the evens within were 'based' on reality (not that there's any good reason for banning a book).  But I suppose at the end of the day, it was banned because it could be.  First published in 1965, The Painted Bird was released 23 years before the fall of Communism in Poland.  The commies never did seem to appreciate a good book.

Next up, is The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth.  This week marks the two year anniversary of starting this project, so I'm more or less on a four year pace, reading 25 books per.  'More or less' are the key words in that sentence.

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