The Painted Bird Summary, Review PDF

Jerzy Kosiski’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird depicts World War II from the point of view of a boy who is considered a “Gypsy or Jewish stray.”

Kosiski initially described the story, set in small villages in an unspecified Central and Eastern European country, as autobiographical, but after publication by Houghton Mifflin stated that it was entirely fictional.

You may be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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Book Summary

In the first weeks of World War II, in the fall of 1939, a six-year-old boy from a large city in Eastern Europe was sent by his parents, like thousands of other children, to the shelter of a distant village.” However, in the chaos of war, the parents lost track of their son. The boy was left in a rural village under the care

of an old woman, Marta, who was “always bent over as though she wanted to break herself in half but could not.”

The boy feared Marta, with her gnarled hands and foul smell. Marta also feared the boy, whose swarthy skin and dark eyes invoked her superstitious sentiments. She believed that one glance into his eyes could invoke an evil spell bringing disease, plague or death.

And soon after the child’s arrival, Marta did become ill. One night while she soaked her feet, she died; and the boy, thinking she was merely asleep, watched as the slumping corpse and the thatch house were engulfed in a fire he had accidentally caused.

Now the boy was on his own. Still, he had faith that his mother and father would somehow find him: “… Even far away, they must know all that had happened to me. Wasn’t I their child?” So the boy crossed the fields into a nearby village in search of his parents.

The villagers jeered at the dark child and soon were kicking him and poking him with farm tools. Just then a man worked his way through the crowd, grabbed the boy, and shoved him into a burlap sack. As the lad struggled, the peasant clubbed him into unconsciousness.

Arriving home, the peasant presented his captive and began a practice of whipping the boy’s legs to make him dance for the pleasure of his family and neighbors – until one day an old woman named Olga came to visit and decided to buy the boy.

In Olga’s two-room hut, she kept “dried grasses, leaves … frogs, moles, and pots of wriggling lizards and worms.” The boy became Olga’s helper, tending her fire and feeding the animals. He accompanied her when she administered her “treatments” to local peasants. His job was to stare at her patients with his “bewitched eyes” to remove evil spirits, said to cause sickness.

But all this came to an end one day when a villager caught and cleaned a giant catfish, and, as a joke, the townsfolk flung the boy onto the huge discarded air bladder left floating in the river, and the boy was carried off by the current.

Again left to survive on his own, the boy stayed with a cruel miller for a time. He watched as the miller flogged his wife and blinded a plowboy suspected of sleeping with her: “… With a rapid movement such as women use to gouge out the rotten spots while peeling potatoes, he plunged the spoon into one of the boy’s eyes and twisted it. The eye sprang out of his face like a yolk from a broken egg and rolled down the miller’s hand onto the floor. … ” The boy wisely determined to flee the miller’s company, and soon found himself with a new master, Lekh.

“My duty was to set snares for Lekh, who sold birds in several neighboring villages. … Lekh taught me that a man should always watch birds carefully and draw conclusions from their behavior.” Some days Lekh would leave the boy in a clearing and go off to meet his lover, “Stupid Ludmila.” “To Lekh she seemed to belong to that pagan, primitive kingdom of birds and forests where everything was infinitely abundant, wild, blooming.” Ludmila often lured many of the townsmen into the bushes. Then one day the village wives captured Ludmila and kicked her to death. Afterwards, Lekh fell on her corpse and sobbed all night long. “Too afraid to return to the hut,” the boy retreated into the woods.

The boy next lived with a carpenter and his wife, who feared that his coal black hair might attract lightning to their farm. When a storm raged, the carpenter would tie the boy onto a cart, and drive it to the middle of a field until the rain had ceased.

However, one night when a ferocious storm suddenly struck the village, the boy ran into the barn for shelter. “In an instant the barn was jarred by an uncanny peal of thunder.” It was quickly engulfed in flames. The boy barely made his escape into the forest, where he hid all night, convinced that his hair had brought the lightning down on the barn and knowing that the carpenter would punish him.

The next morning the boy wandered through the forest until he found an overgrown cobblestone road, which he followed to a deserted military bunker. Hearing a muffled squeaking from inside the bunker, he peered through an opening at a sea of rats “murdering and eating one another.”

As he hurried off in panic and disgust, the boy unwittingly circled back into the carpenter’s village, where he was captured and returned to his master. The carpenter pummeled him, threatening a dire death. Just then an idea entered the boy’s head: He promised his master that “if he would not drown me, I would show him a pillbox filled with old boots, uniforms, and military belts.”

The next morning the two headed for the bunker. As the carpenter leaned over the opening, squinting into the darkness for a glimpse of the treasure, the boy hurled against him, and he “dropped into the maw of the pillbox with a dull thud.” Within minutes the rats had reduced the corpse to a pile of bones.

Continuing his journeys, the growing but still scrawny boy lived with a blacksmith for a time. But one day a group of Nazi-fighting partisans entered the village, accused the blacksmith of collaborating with Nazis, and butchered him on the spot. One soldier was assigned to take the boy into the forest and shoot him. However, the man merely feigned the execution and released the child.

On another occasion, while the boy, his farmer-master, and other villagers were out gathering mushrooms, a new kind of train steamed up on the nearby rail line. “Living people were jammed in locked cattle cars. … In each car there were two hundred of them stacked like cornstalks, arms raised to take up less space.” Sometimes these people – Jews, headed for the concentration camps and crematoriums – threw out photographs, little remembrances of themselves.

“German detachments began to search for partisans in the surrounding forests. … ” One night the farmer woke the boy and warned him that soldiers were coming. He scurried into the wheat fields, but was found and taken in a cart, along with another prisoner, who had been severely beaten, to a large town.

From there they were dispatched to a military headquarters and presented to an SS officer. As the officer looked them over, the wounded man spat at him and called him a “pig.” He was immediately shot. The boy, though, was released and given over to a local priest, who, in turn, put him in custody of a man named Garbos. “There were three of us in the household. The farmer Garbos, who had a dead, unsmiling face and half-open mouth; the dog, Judas, with sly glowering eyes; and myself.” Garbos, for no apparent reason, would nightly flog the boy, hang him by the arms from a ceiling beam, and incite the dog against him.

During a village-wide celebration, all gathered at the cathedral for mass, and the boy silently followed his master to watch. The priest’s housekeeper found him hiding in a corner and decided that since one of the altar boys was ill, this “gypsy foundling” would serve as a replacement.

During the service, it was the altar boy’s duty to walk to the missal, lift it by its base, and take it before the altar. Weak from so many beatings, when the boy hoisted the holy object, he tipped backwards and “the missal and its tray tumbled down the steps.”

A group of peasants dragged the boy from the church and tossed him into a large manure pit. Retching and gasping for air, when he finally pulled himself out of the deep mire, he noticed that he had lost his voice: “I tried to cry out, but my tongue flapped hopelessly in my mouth.”

In the ensuing months, the pathetic youngster moved from village to village. Once, a group of ruffians pushed him into an ice-covered lake. Miraculously, he survived. Finally, after a brutal confrontation involving a group of villagers, a band of Russian deserters, and a brigade of Russian troops, some Russian soldiers took him in and gave him medical treatment and food. They taught the boy how to read and tutored him in Communism.

Eventually the war came to an end and the boy, still mute, was sent to an orphanage in the Polish city where he had lived with his parents before the war.

One morning the principal ordered the boy to come to her office. There he saw a familiar-looking man and woman. Now all of twelve years old, the no-longer innocent lad was reunited with his stranger-parents. At their apartment an adopted four-year-old brother also awaited.

Over the weeks that followed, the boy remained thin and sickly. “The doctor advised mountain air and lots of exercise.” He was sent to the mountains, where an aged and kind ski instructor looked after him. One day the mountain where they skied was hit by a blizzard. “I lost sight of the instructor and started on my own down the steep slope,” the boy recounted. “My skis bounced over hardened, icy snow and the speed took my breath away. When I suddenly saw a deep gully it was too late to make a turn. … ”

When he woke up, the boy said, “I opened my mouth and strained. Sounds crawled up my throat. … The voice lost in a faraway church had found me again and filled the room.”

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Book Review

Kosinski’s tale of a child left to survive a hostile, superstitious world, is partly autobiographical, partly fiction, but, as the author asserts, fiction is not that far from reality. The Painted Bird has been accused of being too brutal, too graphic, too sexually violent. These accusations appear weak, however, when compared to the stark reality of people in cattle cars being driven to their deaths.

Kosinski maintains that life – any life – even one that includes tremendous pain and injustice, is preferable to death. This story, as the book’s jacket description indicates, is “about the proximity of terror and savagery to innocence and love … and exploration into the nature of evil and the totalitarian mind.”

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