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Jerzy Kosinski: Being There

This novel might be best-known to many people because of the superb film, in which Peter Sellers gives a stunning performance. However the book, though only short, is well worth reading. It tells the story of a man who may or may not have psychological problems. At the beginning of the book the man – he is called only Chance – is working for the Old Man in a walled garden. Chance work as a gardener but it is never clear what his relationship is to the old man – maybe grandson?. Chance watches television all the time but he cannot read and write and has little contact with anyone else and no contact with the outside world. When the Old Man dies, the executors cannot find any record of his employment status in the documents relating to the Old Man and nor does he have any form of identification. The lawyers throw him out.

When he leaves the Old Man’s house, he is hit by a passing limousine. The woman in the car takes him to her house where her rich and much older husband is dying. The husband is a successful financial magnate. When he talks to Chance about the world, Chance answers in terms of relationships to the garden and based on what he has seen on television. His comments on the garden are taken as brilliant metaphors about the state of the economy. When the President of the United States visits he talks to Chance who again uses his gardening comments. The President quotes Chance on television and Chance – now Chauncy Gardiner – is suddenly famous, sought after by the media and the influential as a wise man. The lady of the house even falls in love with him. He does so well on television, thanks to his ability to mimic people on television and his ability to be all things to all men, that, by the end of the novel, he is being considered as a possible successor to the President.

This may well have been Kosinski’s most successful novel. There is no doubt that his subsequent novels had far less critical and commercial success. This novel is written as a parable and the biblical links are very apparent. But it also shows up the naivety – some would say stupidity – of the powers that be, in blindly accepting a man they barely know (neither the FBI and CIA have been able to find out anything about him) who, as we know, cannot read or write and who issues what are, frankly, bland homilies, based on gardening. The TV culture, which Kosinski mocks so well, is shown up for its shallow nature. But it is the character of Chance – a man of limited intelligence, of no background or antecedents and of only one real ability, that of gardening – that will remain a superb creation.

Publishing history

First published 1971 by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich