Written in 1932 by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is a classic Polish novel of the 20th century and one of Polish readers’ all time favourites. It depicts the rather fortunate rise to power of a man from nowhere (the titular Nicodemus Dyzma), who by sheer luck and opportunism reaches the top tiers of public administration. The novel’s lasting grip on the imagination of the reading public can be seen in the way that the protagonist’s name has since become a proverbial way to refer in Polish to the type of crude opportunist who has a tendency to fall upwards through society with the help of trickery, public acquiescence and a handful of good luck.
Published now for the first time in English, the book admittedly gained some wider notoriety in the English-speaking world as early as the 1970s, when some critics pointed to the strange similarities between its plot and that of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel Being There. Some even went so far as to accuse Kosiński’s novel of plagiarism. While the book is certainly a brilliant and poignant satire on the political life of interwar Poland (with its omnipresent corruption and nepotism), its focus on an unskilled and ill-equipped parvenue’s ascendancy to the top governmental ranks certainly has a more universal appeal – one which has been only gaining relevance in recent years.
The excerpt below picks up just after the end of a fateful banquet that Dyzma has crashed. Dyzma finds himself in the company of Leon Kunicki, a powerful industrialist who quickly reveals himself to be a better-dressed version of a common swindler. As Kunicki makes Dyzma an offer he can’t refuse, we watch as our protagonist exchanges one sordid life for another.
On the table stood a low lamp with a green shade, its light illuminating only a small circle of plush tablecloth, a box of cigars, a mossy old bottle, and two glasses of amber liquid. The room around them was so dark that the contours of the furniture seemed to dissolve into the murk.
Dyzma was sunk deep in an overstuffed chair. He felt exceptionally sluggish and so drowsy he surely would have fallen right to sleep listening to this monotonous voice, these muffled, lisping words like tiny beads rapidly threaded one after another on a thin string, if not for, at the opposite side of the table, the diminutive figure of Kunicki, his white dickey and silvery-gray hair aglow, intermittently emerging from the gloom into the circle of lamplight.
Then those small, sharp, insistent eyes would bore through the darkness in their attempt to meet Dyzma’s gaze.
“So you see, sir, you see how hard it is with these two-bit provincial officials and their red tape. Hamstringing and harassment. They hide behind regulations, they use rules as an excuse, but it’s all just to ruin me, to take bread from the mouths of my workers. Mr. Dyzma, you, God’s honest truth, you are my only hope, my only hope.”
“Me?” Dyzma was incredulous.
“You,” Kunicki repeated with conviction. “You see, sir, I’ve already been to Warsaw four times in regard to this matter, and I said to myself, if I don’t blow this tyrant out of the water now, this dimwit Olszewski, if I can’t get a decent contract on state forest lumber from the Ministry of Agriculture—that’s it! I’m liquidating everything! I’ll sell it to the Jews—the sawmills, the furniture factory, the paper mill, the cellulose factory—they’ll get it all for next to nothing, and as for me, I don’t know, I’ll shoot myself in the head or something.”
“To your health, Mr. Dyzma,” he added after a pause, and he drained his glass in one gulp.
“But how can I help you?”
“Hee hee,” Kunicki chuckled. “That’s a good one, sir. Just a tiny little favor, just a little . . . Oh, yes, sir, I am well aware that it would take up some of your valuable time, and the . . . and yes, there are costs, but with your connections, ho . . . ho!”
He slid his chair closer. His tone suddenly changed.
“My dear sir. I’ll be straight with you: if some miracle worker stood in front of me and said, ‘Kunicki, I’ll try to take care of this matter for you, I’ll fire this idiot Olszewski from the State Forestry Board of Directors, I’ll replace him with somebody who listens to reason, and I’ll try to get you a good quota of lumber, what would you give me for it?’ Well, in that case I would answer without hesitation: ‘Mr. Miracle Worker, thirty, no, let’s make it thirty-five grand in cash, I swear to God! Ten thousand down to cover the expenses, and the rest when the deal is done.”
Kunicki stopped and waited for an answer. But Dyzma was silent. He’d understood immediately that this old man was offering him a bribe for something that he, Dyzma, he, Nicodemus Dyzma, even if he racked the entirety of his brains, was unable to do. The enormous sum, a sum so beyond his reality it even outstripped his wildest dreams, further underscored the incongruity of the whole exchange. If Kunicki had offered him three hundred or even five hundred zlotys, the deal would have lost its abstract unattainability and appeared instead as a lucrative opportunity for Dyzma to fleece the old man. It occurred to him that maybe he could blackmail this Kunicki with the threat of denouncing him to the police. Maybe he could get himself a payoff of fifty zlotys or so. Jurczak, the court clerk in Łysków, once made a quick hundred this way. Nah, but the clerk had been at his own office, he was an official . . .
Dyzma’s silence unnerved Kunicki. He didn’t know what to make of it. Was his speech too blunt? . . . Had he offended Dyzma? . . . It would be catastrophic. He had already exhausted all his connections and influence, he had wasted a whole lot of money and time, and if this opportunity slipped through his fingers. . . . He resolved to repair the damage and soften the bluntness of his proposition.
“Of course, these days miracle workers are few and far between. Hee hee . . . And one would be hard-pressed to ask even the kindest, most generous friend to take care of issues he’s only heard about secondhand. Am I right?”
“You know what, I have an idea! Mr. Dyzma, my dear friend, do me the favor of visiting me in Koborowo for a couple of weeks. You can relax, make the most of the countryside, the air is terrific, you can ride a horse, I have a motorboat on the lake . . . And while you’re there you can have a look at my holdings, my sawmill. So, my dear man?! Is it a deal?”
At this new offer, Dyzma’s mouth dropped open in surprise. But Kunicki was indefatigable in his pursuit of the matter: he praised the countryside, the pine forest, the benefits of relaxation; he assured Dyzma that his ladies would appreciate the wonderful diversion of a visitor from Warsaw.
“But, sir,” Dyzma interrupted. “There’s no way I can think about resting right now. Unfortunately, I’ve had altogether too much rest lately.”
“Oh, there’s no such thing as too much.”
“I’m unemployed,” replied Dyzma, smiling wanly.
He expected to see a look of surprise and disappointment on Kunicki’s face, but
instead the old man burst out laughing.
“Hee hee, what a comedian you are! Unemployed! Of course, these are tough times for trade and industry. It is hard to get a lucrative post; then again, in civil service there’s plenty of recognition, but not much income. Even at the executive level, the pay for working in an office is nothing to write home about.”
“I know a little something about that,” Dyzma agreed. “I myself spent three years in the state sector.”
Kunicki suddenly got the picture. “So that’s your angle, you sly dog,” he thought. “Well, so much the better, you just want everything to appear above board.”
“My good man,” he began, “from the moment I met you, I felt it in my bones that you were sent to me by God. Let’s hope that turns out to be the case. Dyzma, sir, my dearest Nicodemus, it just so happens that everything is falling into place. You are looking for a good position, and I’ve reached that age when a man doesn’t have the power he once did. My dear friend, don’t be put off by my boldness, but what would you say, sir, if I were to propose that you take up, so to speak, the general administration of my estate and industrial facilities? And don’t go thinking it’s a two-bit operation. As you’ll see, it’s quite substantial, a good deal of machinery.”
“I don’t know if I could. I know absolutely nothing about any of that stuff,” Dyzma said truthfully.
“Oh please, my dear sir,” Kunicki protested, “you can familiarize yourself easily enough. Besides, I can manage quite well when I’m there, but you know, these trips, these talks with various offices, getting in good with guys like this Olszewski, trying to settle matters at the ministries, I’m already too old for all that. These days you need an energetic, well-connected man who can take these Olszewskis down a peg or two, and, well, someone young. You’re not even forty, my dear man, am I right?”
“I just turned thirty-six.”
“Ah, such youth! My dearest sir, please don’t refuse me. You’ll have comfortable quarters, either with us in the manor or in a separate annex, whichever you’d like. Horses if you want them, an automobile at your disposal. You’ll eat well, it’s not far from the city, and if you want to visit your friends in Warsaw, you’re more than welcome. In other words, zero interference. And as for the terms, I’ll leave that to your discretion.”
“Hmm,” Dyzma murmured, “I really don’t know.”
“So, let’s say a thirty percent cut of any increased revenue, agreed?”
“Agreed.” Dyzma nodded, unclear what he was agreeing to.
“And a salary of, let’s say . . . two thousand a month.”
“How much?” Dyzma asked in astonishment.
“So, two thousand five hundred then. Plus all travel expenses. Deal? Let’s shake on it!”
Dyzma dazedly shook Kunicki’s dainty hand.
The old man, flushed and grinning, lisping on and on without a second’s pause, pulled out an enormous pen, covered a scrap of paper with a dozen lines of small, rounded letters, then handed it to Dyzma. And when “my dear Mr. Nicodemus” signed his name with great precision and a highly sophisticated ornamental flourish, Kunicki drew a number of rustling banknotes from his fat wallet.
“Here’s five thousand up front, and now . . .” And he began to elaborate on Dyzma’s departure and its attendant issues.
Well, old Kunicki, he was thinking to himself, let no one say that you can’t take care of business.
Sure enough, Leon Kunicki was renowned for his exceptional cunning; it was a rare thing for him to lose out on one of his deals, which were shrewdly selected and closed with lightning speed.
A few minutes later, Dyzma’s footsteps had faded away down the corridor, and Kunicki was standing alone in the middle of the room, rubbing his hands together.
Dawn was breaking. The last few specks of stars, already barely visible, were melting away into the celadon firmament. Orderly rows of streetlamps glowed with a sickly white light.
Nicodemus Dyzma walked the streets, the sharp, slapping echo of his footsteps resounding loudly in the emptiness.
His mind was swarming with recollections of the events of the evening he had just passed, a motley tangle of flickering impressions that chased each other around and around but were impossible to pin down. He understood that these events were of enormous importance to him, but he was unable to grasp their essence. He could sense he’d fallen into good fortune of some kind, but as for its basic substance, what it all meant, where it came from and why—he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
The longer he thought about it, the less likely everything seemed to him, the more fantastical and preposterous.
Then he stopped, terrified. He carefully reached into his pocket, and, when his fingers located the thick wad of crisp banknotes, he smiled to himself. Suddenly he registered one important thing: he was very, very rich. He ducked into an archway set back from the street and began to count. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Five thousand!
“So much cash!” he cried aloud.
Conditioned by years of living hand to mouth, Dyzma had one natural reflex: he must drink to it! And even though he was neither hungry nor thirsty, he turned onto Grzybowska Street, where—as he knew—Icek’s pub was still open. He prudently pulled out a hundred and put it in a separate pocket. Flashing around a pile of money like this at Icek’s wasn’t the best idea.
This is an excerpt from “Chapter 2” of Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz’s “The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma”. A novel, translated from the Polish by Ewa Małachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas, with a foreword by Benjamin Paloff. Published by Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Northwestern University Press. Published 2020. All rights reserved.
You can read our interview with Ewa Małachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas here.