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The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma

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You know, I've lost count of the times I've read a guide book about Eastern Europe, or the old Soviet Bloc, where it says if you just stumble on a wedding celebration you'll be pointedly invited in, forced to drink yourself silly, and everyone will call you their best friend and yet not be able to converse one word with you.  This is bollux, and the nearest that has ever happened was some drunken biznismen slinging a couple of vodkas and smiles my way in one of the Stans once.  However, for our hero, if that's the right word, it sort of becomes true.  He finds a waylaid invite to a ministerial party, and wears to it what the pawnbroker was just about to receive.  There he manages to delight many big wigs, and one in particular takes it upon him to pay Nicodemus a fortune every month to be his go-between and society fixer.  Society?  He's been living with a couple with a newborn, alongside a hooker, and hardly managing to pay the rent.  Fixer?  He's been something in a rural post office, the latest in a long line of failed career attempts.  How could he have stumbled so perfectly well into a position so perfectly ill-suited for him?

This does not read like a state-of-the-nation, society comedy from a different world from the 1930s.  Yes, it has some of the arch commentary about the upper class that you might have got from Chekhovian Russia, but it all feels so much more modern than that.  The fish out of water shtick is very enjoyable here, although the book does not allow Dyzma to be that naive for too long – the modern word for someone on the blag, getting to where he's going by being in the right place at the right time and just succeeding by knowing what to say to whom, is Dyzma, courtesy of this novel that is so noted in its native Poland.

It's not a perfect read – it's certainly a touch on the long side, but it does have a healthy amount of call-backs, and even if some of the secondary characters aren't defined well enough, they all engage with a right old fun web of intrigue surrounding Dyzma by the end.  Also, the snappy and informative introduction here is spot on when it mentions modern parallels to this – you can see the current equivalent, of the person dropping the right allegation on social media, just to get what he wants.  This is an exploration of fake news, corruption, and the hoi polloi's bland acceptance of the inept, decades before we were collectively forced to live through it.  I wasn't a hundred per cent convinced by the translation – there is a character who speaks in turns of phrase, if you know what I'm saying at the end of the day, but beyond him the few colloquialisms and cusses that turn up seem somewhat forced, however truthful to the original they might be.  Also, a lot of the vocab is rather high-falutin', and not what Dyzma himself would ever have understood.  But beyond wishing this to have been trimmed here and there, I was on board for this – it's prescient, engaging and not too bad at all.  A pronunciation guide might have served, as that could have made this more friendly to the general reader as opposed to the specialist literary expert, but this is a book the commuting consumer should be able to get entertainment from.
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What is the best-known Polish novel you’ve never heard of? I’ll hazard a guess and say it’s The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dolęga-Mostowicz. First issued in 1932 as Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy, it is now being published by Northwestern University Press in a translation by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas, the first one ever in English. As Benjamin Paloff explains in his introduction to the work, this novel had such an impact in Poland that it has penetrated popular culture and parlance where the word “Dyzma” is used for “a phony, a fraud, especially one whose trickery depends on others’ assumptions, self-deceptions, and moral shortcomings”. Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There (1970), later adapted into a film featuring Peter Sellers, was immediately recognised by Polish critics to be a plagiarised version of Dolęga-Mostowicz’s novel. Ironically, the original Dyzma is making his debut in the English-speaking world fifty years after his copy did. It is a twist of fate which seems strangely apt considering that this is a novel about an impostor and trickster.

The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is set in the (then contemporary) Poland of the 1930s. With the declaration of the Second Polish Republic in 1918, Poland had become an independent state, after having been previously ruled by the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. This novel is a biting satire on the ruling class which took over the country, portrayed as a society corrupt at its heart, built on an unhealthy and unholy alliance between the political class, Polish nobility and big business. We meet the protagonist, Dyzma, as a down-and-out, unemployed clerk, eking out a hand-to-mouth existence. Having acquired, by pure chance, an invitation to a high-class party, he decides to gate-crash the event, with no other expectation than to eat his fill for free. However, an altercation with bigwig Terkowski, hated and feared by all, marks him out as a brave straight-talker, exactly the “strong man” needed in politics. No one is more surprised at this than Dyzma himself. As his fame grows and he becomes the darling of the upper classes, Dyzma cunningly manages to survive by lying through his teeth, recycling other people’s opinions, surrounding himself with trusted collaborators and, when necessary, relying on the power of his newly-found riches and connections. In the circles he frequents, Dyzma’s ignorant silences are seen as proof of his wisdom; his uncouth behaviour is excused as a mark of his strong, magnetic personality; his demeaning attitude towards women is admired (including by some of his conquests) as the embodiment of the virile.

What I found brilliant about this novel is that Dyzma beguiles even us readers, even though we know he is a fraud. He is presented, not unfavourably, as an anti-hero. His often comic escapades, sometimes redolent of early Waugh (there’s a brilliant set-piece involving Dyzma’s appointment as the leader of a cabal of high-society witches), make him a surprisingly endearing character, one we root for as he hoodwinks a corrupt and morally bankrupt political class. It is when Dyzma’s actions become unequivocally indefensible that we realise that, like many others in the novel, we have also been taken in by the protagonist (and his creator). This is not light-hearted comedy but a dark and cynical satire. And real satire always has a moral heart. In this case, the message is as relevant as ever. By all means, take the ruling class to task. But be equally careful of charismatic figures who portray themselves or are portrayed as political saviours. Be careful of those jesters who promise to short-circuit the system, and yet end up using it for their own ends. Close to a century after its publication, as the culture of the “strong man” seems to be gaining ground again, the novel comes across as a frighteningly timely one.
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Wow - even though this book was first published in Poland in 1932, it mirrors our own political situation now in many ways!    Th political satire is is an indictment of a system where money and connections matter most, and crudeness and ignorance are worshipped!  Could have been written today!  Thanks to Netgalley for this ARC.
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Thank you to the publisher for an advanced copy via netgalley!

First, the prologue of this book adds a lot of great historical background of this book and the controversy associated with it. I was excited to read this book  before the prologue, but afterwards I was even more intrigued!

Second, this book is well written and keeps you on the edge of your seat as you read how a broke,  uneducated man used his street smarts to climb the social hierarchy to the point of declining the position of prime minister!! 

This story reminds us of the dangers of entrusting the people in power blindly.
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The description for this reminded me of the brilliant book (Kosiński) and movie Being There (staring Peter Sellers) before those were mentioned in the blurb. This is certainly different but good in it's own way. It is well written and somewhat timeless. For those seeking a lighthearted read that will likely generate a few smiles, this may be it.

I really appreciate the review copy!!
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“The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma” by Tadeusz Dolega-Mosyowicz and masterfully translated by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas is a classic Polish novel first now available to English readers thanks to Northwestern University Press. It is viewed as a thinly veiled metaphor of Polish political life between the wars. It is also viewed by some as a prescient depiction of the future Solidarity era headed by Lech Walesa.

This is all assuredly true. “The Career” is often absurdly comical, unbelievable, disquieting, unnerving. Set pieces are wonderfully written. There are tons of characters, some drawn more fully than others, but the entire Polish 1930’s class system is described in all its absurdity and corruption. There is lots to learn by those with lots to learn of mid-20th Century Polish manners and fears. 

With that said, I found the novel to be far more universal. I was reminded of people that I have met along the way in politics, business, or civic affairs when the first question you ask is, “How did he get there?” (because it is always a “he”). The answer once you dig down just a little is that some circumstance of fate over-interpreted or overvalued an implied credential or a non-answer was seen as a brilliant answer. One fool move is followed by another until some says that we are in the presence of genius. No one is willing to expose the Emperor as having no clothes.  The only threat is exposure by those who knew the genius when he was living on crumbs on the street. Those people need to be eliminated. 

“The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma” is well worth the read regardless of which level of allegory you most prefer. It flows smoothly, has a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to enjoy. For readers always relishing in the exposure of the endless flaws and inequities in humanity, especially in its ruling circles.

Thank you to Northwestern University Press and NetGalley for the eArc.
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Entertaining and well-written. I appreciate the translation.  Dyzma is down and out, but a chance finding of an invitation to an elite party starts him on his way to success.  At many points, the events in the story are somewhat ridiculous, and Dyzma himself expresses that he finds the situations absurd.  But, he certainly doesn’t give it up.  The story stood the test of time and could have been written today.

I received this free ebook ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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This is a book with a premise you've read/seen before - a random dude goes to the right party and says something in front of the right people, and is all of the sudden popular because bored, rich people love anything new.  You follow Dyzma on his adventurous path, and it is really an enjoyable novel.
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The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is a delightful, entertaining read. The biting political satire explores how even the most incompetent person can rise to a position of power through chance, misunderstandings and sheer bravado. Dyzma is an engaging character. You can't help but enjoy following his adventures, even if you cringe at their ramifications. The prose is easy reading, suggesting a sensitive translation from the Polish, and the story moved along at a good pace, with plenty of action and amusement along the way. An easy 4.5 stars from me.

I received this book as a free eBook ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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It is great to have an English translation of this wonderful book by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, which is really a wonderful read and humorous to boot.  It is worth reading the introductory piece before actually starting the novel, because a certain author named Jerzy Kosinski wrote a book called Being There, which is very similar in many ways to this, and caused quite some controversy at the time with calls of plagiarism.  Here then we have the original story written by this still popular Polish author, and this was a success on its first appearance and has remained still quite popular in Poland ever since.

Here then we meet Nicodemus Dyzma, and as this opens, he is trying unsuccessfully to get a job in Warsaw, having come from the provinces.  When he sees an envelope being dropped, he is unable to catch the person who has accidentally dropped it onto the ground and taking a peek inside he sees that it is an invitation for a reception.  Down on his luck and with the thoughts of free food, so he decides to present himself at the party.  Thus our story is under way, as things seem to fall into Dyzma’s lap.  Getting initially mistaken for someone else, and making friends with others at the reception, so his attitude seems refreshing and humorous to others, and he is soon taken under the wing by a con-man who hopes to make himself rich off his back.  And thus our rather inept main character soon finds himself on the rise.

With an idea given to him by the con-man Kunicki and which he passes off as his own soon he is given a prestigious government post and hailed as some sort of economic genius and guru, with supposed abilities far beyond his range, some of it due to his having lied and said that he had gone to Oxford for his education.  Making money, falling in love, settling scores and such like is all part of the game here, and in Poland doing a Dyzma has become part of the language.   With corruption and populism so this still reads as fresh as when the Polish people first got a look at this, and in the English speaking world we have a couple of highly inept and ridiculous leaders who are only in power due to the stupidity of and seeming indifference of the electorate.  Yes, Britain and America have cretins for leaders.  With Kunicki behind the scenes as it were guiding Dyzma there are distinct parallels with Dominic Cummings pulling the strings of Boris Johnson, who has like Donald Trump been ruthless to get to their positions, although as we see here Dyzma is more honourable as he could go further than he does, but holds back as he knows that his lack of education and other things will eventually come to light.

A book then that gives us a satirical look at the world we can see many things that happen here still resonating amongst us now, and unfortunately will probably do so for quite some time to come.  A thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with an e-ARC of this excellent novel.
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