An obscure village in Poland, sheltered from ideas and industrialization, seemed a safe place to store one’s most precious valuable: a 6-year-old boy. Or so it seemed to the parents who abandoned their only son to protect him from the Nazis in the beginning of Jerzy Kosinski’s provocative 1965 novel The Painted Bird. After his guardian Marta dies and her decaying corpse and hut are accidentally engulfed in flames, the innocent young dark-haired, dark-eyed outcast is obliged to trek from village to village in search of food, shelter, and companionship. Beaten and caressed, chastised and ignored, the unnamed protagonist survives the abuse inflicted by men, women, children and beasts to be reclaimed by his parents 7 years later-a cold, indifferent, and callous individual.The protagonist’s experiences and observations demonstrate that the Holocaust was far too encompassing to be contained within the capsule of Germany with its sordid concentration camps and sociopolitical upheaval. Even remote and “backward” villages of Poland were exposed and sucked into the maelstrom of conflict. The significance of this point is that it leads to another logical progression: Reaching further than the Polish villages of 1939, the novel’s implications extend to all of us. Not only did Hitler’s stain seep into even the smallest crannies of the world at that time, it also spread beyond limits of time and culture. Modern readers, likewise, are implicated because of our humanity. The conscientious reader feels a sense of shame at what we, as humans, are capable of through our cultural mentalities. That is one of the more profound aspects of Kosinski’s work.It is this sense of connectedness between cultures, people, and ideas that runs through the book continuously. While the “backward” nonindustrialized villages of Poland seem at first glance to contrast sharply with “civilized” Nazi Germany, Kosinski shows that the two were actually linked by arteries of brutality and bigotry. Both cultures used some form of religious ideology to enforce a doctrine of hate upon selected groups whom they perceived to be inferior. Totalitarian rhetoric and Nietzschian existentialism replace a hybrid of Catholicism, which in turn replaces medieval superstition as the protagonist is carried from the innards of village life to the heart of totalitarian power.In the first several chapters of the novel the little protagonist is firmly convinced that demons and devils are part of the tangible, physical world. He actually sees them. They are not mythological imaginings confined to a fuzzy spiritual world. They are real, and he believes the villagers’ insistences that he is possessed by them. The peasants use these superstitious beliefs to enforce a doctrine of hate upon the boy. Even their dogs seem to believe in this credo, chasing, biting, and barking at him as if a viciousness towards dark-haired boys is programmed into their genetic makeup. The text of the villagers’ behavior reads like a gruesome car accident on the side of the road at which one cannot help but crane one’s neck. It is both repulsive and compelling; one reads in a state of disbelief and horror. The cruelty, moreover, isn’t limited to Jews and Gypsies. Anyone getting in the way is targeted. The rule of weak over strong prevails and justifies any actions taken against those unfortunate enough to incite anger. A stirring example of this phenomenon is when the protagonist witnesses a jealous miller gouging out the eyes of his wife’s “lust interest,” an otherwise innocuous 14-year-old plowboy whose only sin was in staring too fixedly at a woman’s bosom:”And with a rapid movement such as women used 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 plowboy howled and shrieked, but the miller’s hold kept him pinned against the wall. Then the blood-covered spoon plunged into the other eye, which sprang out even faster. For a moment the eye rested on the boy’s cheek as if uncertain what to do next; then it finally tumbled down his shirt onto the floor.” The peasants’ behavior demonstrates that Hitler simply harnessed preexisting attitudes. Even Poland, seemingly neutral and exploited as it was, absorbed distrustful attitudes toward Jews and Gypsies and felt no qualms about taking aggressions out violently on weaker people. Everyone, to a certain extent, bought into this bigotry. It left not even the most remote areas untouched. As the novel progresses, the protagonist changes environments and subsequently alters his religious beliefs. He realizes (during the intervals when he is not being ravaged by a savage dog unleashed upon him by the man he is staying with) that prayer-Catholicism-is the answer to all his troubles. If he can only say enough Hail Mary’s, all his misfortunes will disappear. Surely the Lord will hear him as he stores up indulgences in heaven as in a bank, guaranteeing himself both literal and spiritual salvation. But his prayers never save him from cruelty and brutality. The more he prays, in fact, the worse things seem to get. But, he reasons, Catholicism is a much more rational religion than those silly superstitions with their foul magical potions that never seem to work. It’s a step in the right direction. Even if his prayers aren’t being answered immediately, at least he’s assured a space in heaven.Catholicism, likewise, was used by the peasants to persecute the protagonist. He is chased out of the church by an angry mob after he accidentally drops a sacred book during his short-lived stint as an altar boy. Clearly, they use the accident as an excuse to exercise hate towards him. He is accused of being possessed by the devil, and the fact that his small frame staggers under the weight of the massive book is proof. Catholicism, with respect to its members’ compassion, is no different than medieval superstition. There is no Christian love in this church. In the words of Nietzsche, “God is dead.” Finally the protagonist is taken up by the Red Army, exposed to books and new ideas, and convinced that God and devils, demons and heaven and hell are all simply figments of the imagination, used by people with power to get masses of people to do what they want. He reacts against Catholicism with the same violent revulsion with which he reacted against superstition. He feels incredibly foolish for having believed such groundless ideas that had nothing to do with facts: “Recalling some of the phrases in those prayers, I felt cheated. They were, as Gavrila said, filled only with meaningless words. Why hadn’t I realized it sooner?” With no God, there are no stone tablets from which to derive morality. The protagonist comes to the realization that each man makes his own morality, and whatever actions he commits within that reality are justified because he is carrying out his own system of values, ideals, beliefs. The best reality is that of the Communist Party, he learns, who alone are capable of knowing what is best for the masses: “The Party members stood at that social summit from which human actions could be seen not as meaningless jumbles, but as part of a definite pattern.” In one scene the protagonist’s kindly mentor and role model, Mitka-a grandfather figure-calmly fires a high powered machine gun at a distant villager who is sleepily stretching his arms in the sunlight-strewn hours of early morning. The admiring protagonist is amazed. He understands that Mitka’s action is justified because he is superior, a member of the Party. Revenge is justified. We see from this that cruelty still exists: it has simply changed form. What ties the villagers’ superstitions together with totalitarianism is best stated in the prologue of The Painted Bird: “The only law [in the villages] was the traditional right of the stronger and wealthier over the weaker and poorer.” . One can’t help but question the progress of the protagonist’s moral character at the conclusion of the novel. He is cruel and indifferent to other people’s suffering. Even as his parents finally come for him, he breaks the fingers of his newly adopted four year old brother without feeling the least bit of sympathy or remorse for his action. Clearly, his philosophy has become a kind of social Darwinism: eat or be eaten. Survival of the fittest. What makes this book so complex is that no morals seem to be propounded. The reader, along with the protagonist, is left sprawling on a gigantic icy slab of chaotic relativism, his moral knees knocked out from under him. He must rely on others to teach him, but everyone has something different to tell him. We find that cruelty is made understandable, love is perverted. Even sex is reduced to the basest elements: animals copulating are no more base, no more beautiful than humans. There is no distinction between man and beast. The two, in fact, are often fused together and/or confused, each taking on the qualities of the other.In a Never Ending Storyish kind of way, the reader often finds him/herself transplanted into the innocent mind and young helpless body of the protagonist: through his suffering, his joys, his bitterness and ambivalence. It is this transplantation that makes the book so difficult to endure, and so irresistibly lucid and compelling. I felt terrible and sad, angry at the world and at the cruelty that one human being will do to another. I found myself questioning the meaning of things right along with the protagonist. Kosinski achieves the difficult task of inspiring sympathy without thrusting dogmatic ideals into the reader’s head. It is understandable to take a depressing view of the world from the circumstances presented in the novel. Reality is turned upside down and inside out, its guts laid bare for all to see, and finally casually gotten used to and embraced by the main character. One critic puts forth this nihilistic interpretation of the Painted Bird. Poore states in his review:”[The protagonist] grew in his bitter wisdom immeasurably. The blows he could not escape he endured. These were the cost-sheets of survival in a senselessly brutal world. And when his turn came to take some unfair advantage, he took it. “That, Mr. Kosinski seems to be telling us, is how things are in our world. People who are treated unjustly do not invariably treat others justly. People who are discriminated against in turn may be found discriminating against others.”Unlike a Stephen King novel, however, the book avoids being cast into the genre of cheap horror thrills because at the same time it creates a deep sense of beauty and social responsibility while paradoxically indicting the reader as being not much different than the murderous villagers. One critic writes of this phenomenon by ascribing to Kosinski the ability to create open-ended symbols which achieve the difficult effect of mirroring whatever attitudes the reader brings into the book. That, he explains, is why people have such differing views on the novel, ranging from horror filled to awe-inspired. This critic went on to say that, because each viewer makes the work his/her own, he/she therefore is held accountable to his/her own interpretation of the work. He states, “For them, in fact, these texts become a test of courage-whether or not they can recognize themselves as not only the victims of language but also as the murderers.” Several other critics emphasized the book’s concentration on grim and grotesque realities. Bauke repeatedly stresses the author’s mastery over painting the black tones of the protagonist’s harsh existence. “It is a book of terrifying impact, replete with scenes of sadism rarely matched in contemporary writing,” he writes. “Mr. Kosinski evokes with the grim precision of a dream a world of Gothic monstrosities.”While suffering and cruelty are, indeed, major recurring themes throughout the book, beauty in its purity and innocence is also depicted generously and with great texture. Sometimes the beauty is even interwoven with what many would otherwise see as ugly. This is evident in the protagonists’ first guardian, Marta. Marta is an ambivalent figure, at best. She is ugly, foul smelling, and often ignorant of the protagonist’s suffering. On the other hand, she occasionally expresses an endearing sort of sentimentality toward him, raking her long scraggly nails along his head affectionately. She also attempts to heal him when he is ill, mixing vile treatments for him to drink such as “the juice of a squeezed onion, the bile of a billygoat or rabbit, and a dash of raw vodka.” Despite her odd, vomit-inducing ways, the reader still gets a sense of her dedication: she cares.The Painted Bird’s historical contributions lie not in the realm of factual, unbiased, detail-laden information, but in giving us a new way of thinking about the facts that we already have. Most history books tend to focus only on the external aspects of Hitler’s Nazi party’s rise to power, focusing on each country as if it was an entity of itself, individualizing the nations as if they were so many bickering ten-year-olds in the playground of the world. Few books focus on the internal orders of such countries as Poland. Peasants played a major role in ethnic extermination as well by condoning, and often perpetuating, Hitler’s hate. More than that, however, the book’s slow panorama of superstition, Catholicism, and existentialism give us a three-dimensional understanding of all the myriad of ideas that were floating around at that time. We understand them from the mind of a child, we apply them to the experiences we see him having. And if we closely examine them, we’ll find that such ideas are still in the air today-that it is possible for something like the Holocaust to happen again if circumstances are arranged just so. Bosnia, for example, resounds with the echo of the Nazis’ boots.One of the greatest aspects of fiction is that, in many senses, it is always alive. It changes just as history and the people who write it change. As each generation comes of age, they are able to write history-and also fiction-according to their cultural values and beliefs. The beauty of Kosinski’s work is that he allows us to do this. Through his loosely constructed symbolism, readers can continually apply his fiction to modern interpretations. At the same time, however, Kosinski holds us accountable through his graphic, disturbing realistic depiction of what humans are capable of and have, in fact, done. Perhaps if enough people are touched, they can, indeed, prevent scenes like these from occurring again. In this sense, Kosinski’s work is a gift to humanity. It is a gift to the future.