Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz : Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy (The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma)
This book is very well-known in Poland. It has been filmed twice and made into a TV series. More particularly, the term Dyzma is used in Poland to describe a phony, a fraud, especially one whose trickery depends on others’ assumptions, self-deceptions, and moral shortcoming, The book and author are barely known in the English-speaking world but, if they are known, it is mainly for one reason. In 1971 Jerzy Kosinski‘s best-known novel, Being There, was published. It was later made into a successful film, starring Peter Sellers. However, Polish critics, when they read the book, realised that Kosinski had borrowed heavily from this book. English-speaking readers can now judge for themselves.
We first meet Nicodemus Dyzma struggling to get by in Depression-era Warsaw, having come up from Łysków. He wants to be a taxi dancer but is not a very good dancer nor does he have a particular attractive persona. He is rejected by all potential employers. He has a history of failure, from being expelled from school for laziness to being fired from the post office. Things are not looking good.
A young messenger drops a bunch of letters and manages to pick up most of them before catching a tram. However, he misses one which Dyzma picks up, It is an invitation to a banquet. There is no name on the invitation. He is about to discard it when he realises he should go, as there is free food and he has no money for food and he has the appropriate clothing from his dancing.
He gets in without any problem but, as he is collecting his food, a large man knocks him and his food is spilled. He bitterly criticises the man who is apologetic but then realises he might have been too aggressive and be thrown out. It turns out that the large man is not liked and Dyzma is congratulated by various people, including the Minister of Agriculture. Another man, Kunicki, sees Dyzma talking to the Minister of Agriculture and assumes they are friends. He immediately befriends Dyzma and offers him the job of administrator of his estate. We then get the old joke. Kunicki offers Dyzma 2000 zlotys. This is a fantastic sum for Dyzma and he shows surprise. Kunicki thinks he is offering too little and increases the amount.
Dyzma gets the job and heads out to the country but is soon overwhelmed with what he has to deal with. He is also somewhat overwhelmed by Kunicki’s family: Kunicki’s young wife, Nina, whose family used to own the estate till Kunicki tricked them out of it, Nina’s brother, Count Ponimirski, whom Kunicki has had declared insane and Kaisa, Kunicki’s daughter from his first marriage.
However, we know that Dyzma has a habit of falling on his feet. It was critical that he stick to his favoured method, the practice of which had yet to fail when it came to getting results: say as little as possible!. His other method is to listen to other people’s ideas and then repeat them as though they were his own. He is sent back to Warsaw by Kunicki to persuade the Minister of Agriculture to change his mind about how much wood he can chop down but also to introduce a plan to deal with the grain surplus. Again, in both cases he manages to somehow come out ahead, to everybody’s satisfaction, and ends up Director of the National Grain Bank. He is even marginally involved in a plot against Kunciki, fomented by Count Ponimirski.
As always he makes sure he gets someone else to essentially run the place, while he takes the credit and his standing, both within the government and within upper class Polish society increases, not least because he hardly says anything only parroting what others have said.
His sex life has not been too successful but he now takes a fancy to Nina, Kunicki’s wife, and she reciprocates, not least because her husband is old and she only married him to save the family estate. But first, he needs to get rid of Kunicki.
The other problem is that there are several people alive who know who he really is. The Grain Bank has put out his biography which has little contact with reality. A couple of individuals from his past put in an appearance and demand their share. However, it is not a good idea to tangle with a powerful man.
He continues his meteoric rise and, by the end seems likely to be offered the post of prime minister, when a major economic crisis hits the country. Can he refuse and will he be found out?
This is a very clever book. We continue to be amazed how Dyzma rises, despite himself. He is clearly out of his depth in every position he takes, yet he not only survives but thrives by saying as little as possible, stealing ideas from others and making sure someone else does the work, while he takes the credit. Those who really know him, know the truth but they are easily brushed aside. Most of the people he has dealings with do not know him well and take him at face value – a serious and highly intelligent man, with good ideas (though, as we know, the the ideas of others). Only one person sees through him and he is officially insane.
The book is also quite funny as we follow his escapades and think, surely, he will be found it. Bt it is also serious. It attacks corruption in high places in Poland. No-one, including Dyzma, seems to have any qualms whatsoever about cheating, lying, even killing, when deemed necessary, to get their own ways. There is essentially no law, no justice. Yes, of course we are familiar with politicians of that stripe nowadays but, somehow, we might have expected that there might have been a time when politicians were less obvious in their dishonesty. Perhaps not.
This brings us back to the Jerzy Kosinski issue. Did Kosinski blatantly steal from this book, knowing full well that it was not available in English and that US critics would therefore be unaware of his theft? The answer is clearly to a certain extent he certainly did. The basic plot is the same: ordinary man rises to the very top by saying as little as possible. Some of the details are also the same, such as both men going to the house of an elderly man and the elderly man’s much younger wife falling for him and their ability to copy the wisdom of others.
However, Dyzma and Chance are very different men. Chance is seemingly illiterate, Dyzma is not, though much is made of his poor writing skills and lack of knowledge of foreign languages. Chance is very naive, perhaps with psychological problems, while Dyzma can be naive but he can also be cunning. Dyzma does manage to obtain two important posts, Chance does not obtain any. Chance has no background – it is why he is considered as a candidate for the presidency – while Dyzma, though trying to keep his hidden, clearly does have a past. In short, there are similarities and there are differences. Kosinski clearly stole from this book but, clearly, he also invented quite a bit. T S Eliot famously said good writers borrow, great writers steal. It has also been said that there is no such thing as a completely original work. If there were, no-one would publish it and no-one would read it. We want some familiarity, even when we read Finnegans Wake.
It seems to me that we should leave these two writers in their own corners and read each book for its own merits. I really enjoyed this book and really enjoyed both the book and film of Being There. We must be grateful to Northwestern University Press for finally letting us read this book in English and judge it in its own right and not as the precursor of Being There.
First published 1932 by Rój
First English translation 2020 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Ewa Małachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas