War is hell. While we often avoid such clichés, The Painted Bird gives us a grand vision of how war affects those away from the battles. Much like Brennan, Wiesel’s Night came to mind when reading this book. The comparison is not so much the terrors of Nazi soldiers, rather the small “atrocities” enacted by the civilian populace during a time of war. The young boy in Kosinski’s novel is subjected to horror after horror, suffering the prejudices and superstitions of peasants due to his “bastardly” quality of being Gypsy.
The life of the child takes on the nomadic nature like that of the soldiers and captives we have seen in other novels. Henry of A Farewell to Arms travels from various places within Italy and ultimately to Switzerland; Wiesel, in that harrowing trek to freedom, travels from camp to camp and from train to train; and Orr escapes the war in Catch-22 by fleeing to Sweden. Like these other characters, our young lad is constantly displaced, replaced, and displaced again trying to escape the war. This sense of movement, lack of stability, and search for escape that permeates all of the novels we’ve read thus far speak of the common need for soldier and civilian alike to find tranquility.
The Painted Bird is also remarkable in how it addresses the unseen, under-represented perspective of those living with the war, but who are outside the war proper. In much the same way that Leslie Taylor found the Hiroshima poetry fascinating, I found this novel engrossing. Leslie states, “It is important… to acknowledge something like the bombing of Hiroshima because it shows that there are no perfect heroes in war” and that these poems “dared to address a side of the war that the other writers we have encountered either avoided…” The actions of the civilians as portrayed by Kosinski are a perfect example of an author taking on the “heroism” of war and showing a side of war, the plights and prejudices of non-soldiers, that we have seen little to nothing of in the other novels.
While The Painted Bird shows us a different side of war, the novel fits in beautifully with the other works we’ve read thus far in that it shows instability for the individual. There are little if any absolutes and certainties in war, and our protagonists show a state, mental and/or physical, that is constantly in flux. The taxation of a human’s resources and limits are what ultimately exhausts our heroes and leads to that ultimate realization: war is hell.