Elie Wiesel’s Night and Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird established the child’s perspective as a useful lens for confronting the Holocaust
In this sense, what Wiesel learns in Night is what every child who reads Night will also have to learn: that man is capable of the worst, that there is no help from God, that nothing has any permanent value. And the universal bearing of these lessons works against Wiesel’s later claim that the Holocaust is “never to be comprehended or transmitted.” This is one of the effects of placing a child at the center of a Holocaust novel. Because the child grows up into the Holocaust as he grows up into the world, the world and the Holocaust come to reflect one another: He is educated into the only reality he has ever known, and the writer defies us to deny that it is our reality too.
That challenge is still more powerful and defiant in The Painted Bird, because the world Jerzy Kosinski depicts is so grotesquely distorted. When Wiesel presents the reader with an image that seems incredible—for instance, a pit full of the burning corpses of children—he does so with such sobriety and terror that the word “incredible” becomes hollow. Our reluctance to acknowledge the possibility of such a thing happening becomes an indictment of our own cowardice, not of the stroyteller’s veracity. The mirror of the novel is so clear that whatever it reflects must be accepted as true.
With Kosinski, things are not so simple. The horrors that fill The Painted Bird are not the actual horrors of the Holocaust, with which we are familiar from so many accounts. They are, rather, horrors out of the Brothers Grimm, fairy-tale episodes that defy reality in a much more conventional and literary manner. When the nameless child-narrator of The Painted Bird is left by his parents with a peasant woman for the duration of the war, for instance, she is not merely cold or unloving—she is literally a witch, like in “Hansel and Gretel”: “I began to live in her hut. It was a two-room dugout, full of piles of dried grasses, leaves, and shrubs, small oddly shaped colored stones, frogs, moles, and pots of wriggling lizards and worms. In the center of the hut caldrons were suspended over a burning fire.”
Though the novel is set during World War II, it takes place in a series of Polish villages that seem absolutely medieval: Everyone believes in magic and the evil eye, and modern technology is virtually absent. The forms of cruelty Kosinski writes about, therefore, are not the mechanized violence and bureaucratic indifference that drove the actual Holocaust, but the sort of hyper-imaginative sadism familiar from medieval legends. At various moments, the narrator of The Painted Bird is buried up to his neck in the dirt as crows try to peck out his eyes, forced under the ice in a frozen pond, and dropped into a cesspit full of crawling maggots. Kosinski carefully describes a rabbit that is skinned alive, running around the yard as its flesh hangs down in flaps, and a man who is dropped into a pit of rats and reduced to a skeleton.
Most unsettling of all, the atrocities in The Painted Bird become more and more explicitly erotic. A long passage describes the narrator, a prepubescent boy, learning how to manually and orally excite a woman named Ewka; later Ewka is seen copulating with a goat, and her brother rapes a rabbit. Kosinski even echoes Sophocles and Shakespeare by including a scene of eye-gouging. The victim is a teenage boy who has been lusting after a miller’s buxom wife:
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.
There is so much of this Grand Guignol in The Painted Bird that it’s hard to imagine why any reader ever took it for a true autobiography—though they did, including Elie Wiesel, who reviewed it warmly in the New York Times. Kosinski is reflecting the world in a funhouse mirror, not a Stendhalian one, and as in a funhouse—or a horror movie—there is something chillingly pleasurable about the images he produces. Finally, it is this admission of pleasure, even in perverse and disgusting form, that makes Kosinski feel genuinely scandalous. Next to the moral and literary chastity of Night, The Painted Bird reads like pornography.
Yet even Kosinski is writing a kind of Bildungsroman. One of the recurring themes of The Painted Bird is the narrator’s attempt to discover a logical key to the nightmare universe he inhabits. First he puts his faith in Christianity and starts praying obsessively in order to accumulate indulgences in heaven. When this tactic fails, he decides that the real ruler of the world, the God he must propitiate, is Satan:
A man who had sold out to the Evil Ones would remain in their power all his life. From time to time he would have to demonstrate an increasing number of misdeeds. But they were not rated equally by his superiors. An action harming one person was obviously worth less than one affecting many. … But hatreds of large groups of people must have been the most valuable of all. I could barely imagine the prize earned by the person who managed to inculcate in all blond, blue-eyed people a long-lasting hatred of dark ones.
This does not read like a convincing account of a child’s moral reasoning. It is mock-naive, just as the evils in The Painted Bird are mock-evils, designed by an adult for the palates of adult readers. A real child, one feels, would respond to the Holocaust with the earnest despair of Night, rather than with Kosinski’s diabolism.
This makes it all the more troubling that the future of the Holocaust novel may well lie with The Painted Bird rather than Night. Last year, for example, Yann Martel published Beatrice and Virgil, a meta-Holocaust novel in which he argued for the right of the novelist to treat the subject with imaginative freedom. “Was there not a danger to representing the Holocaust in a way always beholden to factuality?” Martel asked, challenging the moral imperative of the faithful mirror. He proceeded to write a parable of the Holocaust involving a donkey and a monkey, who are actually pictures embroidered on the back of a shirt.
This urge to represent the Holocaust through grotesquerie and distortion will surely only increase in the years to come, as the survivor generation dies out and new writers try to come to terms with the experience in new ways. Right now, we are on the cusp of the Holocaust’s passage from memory into history. Once that transformation is complete, The Painted Bird may seem less troubling than it does today, when the austerity of Night still sounds like the voice of our conscience.
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