The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma (2020)

Polish title: Kariera Nikodema Dyzmy (2017)
By: Tadeusz Dołega-Mostowicz
Translated by: Ewa Małachowska-Pask, Megan Thomas
Published by: Northwestern University Press
Originally published by: Siedmioróg

Winner of the 2021 Found in Translation Award

First published in Polish in 1932, The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma was Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz’s breakout novel. Dyzma is an unemployed clerk who crashes a swanky party, where he makes an offhand crass remark that sets him on a new course. Soon high society—from government ministers to drug-fueled aristocrats—wants a piece of him. As Dyzma’s status grows, his vulgarity is interpreted as authenticity and strength. He is unable to comprehend complicated political matters, but his cryptic responses are celebrated as wise introspection. His willingness to do anything to hold on to power—flip-flopping on political positions, inventing xenophobic plots, even having enemies assaulted—only leads to greater success. 

Dołęga-Mostowicz wrote his novel in a newly independent Poland rampant with political corruption and populist pandering. Jerzy Kosinski borrowed heavily from the novel when he wrote Being There, and readers of both books will recognize similarities between their plots. This biting political satire—by turns hilarious and disturbing, contemptuous and sympathetic—is an indictment of a system in which money and connections matter above all else, bluster and ignorance are valorized, and a deeply incompetent man rises to the highest spheres of government.

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Zielony Balonik book club notes:

Despite what the prologue claims about the name ‘Dyzma’, we looked for it in dictionaries in vain.

The translation used colloquialisms unevenly, sometimes sounding Runyonesque, sometimes more modern (both ‘dames’ and ‘chicks’ featured).

A timeless story of the chancer who succeeds.

Critical of the government of the day, but the book was published (and became popular) nonetheless.

Dołęga-Mostowicz himself was beaten up and left for dead (presumably by agents of the regime, though nothing was ever proved), an experience which must have influenced the scene in which the blackmailer Boczek is attacked and killed. The author takes a sort of revenge in this book.

Dyzma is, initially, an accidental villain, playing the role that he is pushed into, that others create for him. We feel some sympathy for him at first, and in that sense are complicit in his rise, before he becomes unpleasant, then monstruous.

He is rude and cruel to his staff – the higher he rises, the worse he becomes.

The ending is anti-climactic – too rational, perhaps? Dyzma himself has a degree of self-awareness, and an ability to reflect on his situation, believes he has reached his limit, and withdraws from public life, believing his lack of education will be revealed if he travels abroad; but perhaps this can be compensated for by his dedication to reading in the library at Koborowo.

He turns his inability to speak other languages into a virtue, into a sign of his patriotism and authenticity.

Presumably the book has been translated now because of the rise of Johnson, Trump and other populist leaders across the world.
Krzepicki is a sort of Dominic Cummings figure, a clever enabler.
Dyzma is built up by others’ projections – understands he’s better off saying less – so in that sense different from Trump, though Johnson has a better sense of when to speak, and when it’s helpful to remain silent (e.g. during the 2019 General Election campaign).
Dyzma is a quick learner. Often afraid he will be exposed, he picks his subordinates well, and the ideas he’ll present as his own. His time as the Bank President is successful, and he makes the most of that to bolster his own position.

A panorama of Warsaw and, more broadly, Polish society is there – working class, landed gentry, Jews.

The novelty of new technology – the cinema, available to all, and the car, available to very few.

Aristocrats, wrapped up in their world of priviledge. They can’t imagine someone they meet doesn’t belong to their world. They engage with the state in a semi-detached fashion.

While it reinforces the sature of this society’s appetite for a strong male leader, the Satanic cult seems an odd diversion, perhaps more dated than other aspects of the book. Dyzma uses these women, desperate to help him, to his advantage. Again, he is pushed into playing a role he at first does not want to take on, then makes the most of it.

Dyzma’s background – supposedly ‘Courland nobility’, reflect his author’s, whose family had to leave what’s now Belorussia after the Bolshevik revolution.

Polish society hasn’t changed all that much in the intervening 90 years. The snobbery and networking is still recognisable.
Kunik / Kunicka’s rise foreshadows that of Dyzma. His paper mills and timber forests remained important drivers of the Polish economy after the war as well.

How sympathetic a character is Nina? She has been forced into one marriage, and duped into another, yet her vanity, gullibility and willingness to conform mean we can hardly root for her.

Dyzma is a peasant name, Nicodemus is biblical – an unlikely combination.

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