Excerpt from “The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma” (1932)

by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, translated from the Polish by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas

The 1932 novel The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma is one of Poland’s most famous and enduring novels. The mordant political satire maintained its popularity before, during, and after the country’s Communist interlude and inspired a film adaptation in 1956, a TV miniseries in 1980, and a contemporary adaptation in 2002. It was also the inspiration for the award-winning 1979 American film Being There, which featured Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine. The novel follows the rise to political power of a churlish opportunist whose simplistic vulgarity the Polish elite mistake for canny introspection.

In the passage below, Dyzma is making his first steps up the social ladder. The landowner Kunicki has tapped Dyzma to manage his large and complex estate, a job for which Dyzma is completely unprepared.


They turned at an avenue of maples and rode for a good half hour past fields dense with ripe rye. The air was still, but out here the heat was more bearable.

“Nice harvest,” Dyzma remarked.

“Yes, yes,” Kunicki answered sadly. “Too nice, too nice, unfortunately.”

Nicodemus burst out laughing. “You say that like it’s a bad thing!”

“And you don’t think it is?” Kunicki asked, surprised. “After all, it’s a disaster for agriculture.” Dyzma was tempted to tell him he didn’t understand, but he held his tongue. Better to be circumspect. “A disaster,” Kunicki repeated. “Prices are dropping like a stone. In two months, we’ll be selling it for chicken feed. It’s a high-yield disaster, dear sir.” Aha, Dyzma thought. You see, who would’ve thought! But best to say as little as possible, and for Christ’s sake, don’t ask questions.

“Well, sure, that’s understandable,” he said in a loud voice. “It’s just that I don’t agree that it’s as bad as you make it out to be.”

He fell silent, and it occurred to him that he needed to add something in order not to appear naive. Which is why he said, casually and somewhat randomly, “Grain’s going up.”

“Bah! But that’s only if the government starts stockpiling grain.”

“And who said they weren’t?”

“What are you telling me?!” Kunicki leapt up.

Dyzma was afraid he had made some ridiculous fundamental error but was immediately reassured when he saw the gleam in his companion’s eye.

“Hot damn! What are you saying? Has it already been decided?”

“For now, it’s the plan . . .”

“My dear Nicodemus! What an absolutely brilliant idea! Brilliant! After all, it’s the government’s duty to protect agriculture; the country’s welfare is entirely dependent on agriculture, for God’s sake. Hell, in this country there’s nothing less than an obsession for tinkering around with the economy. But Poland is seventy percent farmers! Seventy percent. Not industry, not mining, not commerce, but agriculture and agricultural products, livestock and lumber—it’s the basis for everything! What’s good for agriculture is good for everyone—for manufacturers, for wholesalers, for workers! Mr. Dyzma, you really should, sir, you have a sacred duty to your fatherland, to use every bit of your influence to push this brilliant project forward! So the government is going to buy up all the surplus! My God! Koborowo and the house alone . . .”

As he began to mentally calculate the potential profit, Dyzma spoke up again.

“It’s just a matter of money. There isn’t any money.”

“Money, money? That’s nothing.” Kunicki was on fire. “A trifling detail. After all, the state can issue bonds. Grain bonds for, say, a hundred million zlotys. Pay the bonds and that’s that. Charging interest, obviously, at, let’s suppose, five percent, or even six. What do you think, sir? For six years, let’s say. And I’ll be damned if during that stretch there aren’t at least two boom years, right? So then we sell the entire grain supply abroad and make a bundle. What do you think? And tremendous benefits: primo, sustained high prices that’ll really save our hides, and secondo, increased circulation, because, of course, the bonds must be unregistered bearer bonds. And that way the state can give the domestic market a real shot in the arm, to the tune of a hundred million—now there’s a sum that will surely have a salutary effect on our catastrophe of a cash situation. Hot damn! You simply must talk to Minister Jaszuński about this . . .”

“We’ve already talked about it at length, and who knows . . .”

He broke off, and at the same time thought, This old guy’s got a hell of a good head on his shoulders. With a brain like that, he could even be a minister!

Kunicki pursued the matter unflaggingly. He rolled out various arguments, put forth reservations and doubts—which he immediately smashed with the power of his logical reasoning—on and on he lisped, his words tumbling out one after the other while he flourished his whip with emotion.

Meanwhile, the road had curved back into the woods, and they were making their way through tall pines.

In a vast clearing, cords of lumber were stacked along a narrow-gauge railway. A miniature steam engine had just begun to puff and hiss in the effort to move a dozen or so wagon cars loaded with great logs. Two rows of workers were helping it along, pushing the wagons from either side.

The workers doffed their caps with a reluctance that bordered on hostility. A weather-beaten figure in a gray jacket approached their carriage and was starting to say something when Kunicki cut him off.

“Mr. Starkiewicz, say hello to Mr. Dyzma, general administrator.”

The figure took off his cap and gave Dyzma an appraising look. Dyzma bowed slightly.

For a few minutes, while Kunicki grilled Starkiewicz on various particulars, Nicodemus looked curiously around at the masses of accumulated lumber, the barracks slapped together with old planks, the clearing with its whistling saws and moaning axes. When they moved on, Kunicki launched into an expert lecture on the many different grades of wood, the state of their utilization, and the tribulations of obtaining a permit to fell one’s own timber, a stand of trees in this very vicinity. He quoted articles of law, figures, prices, and from time to time he glanced at his companion’s face, which wore an expression of scrupulous attention.

In truth, Dyzma was flailing in a sea of panic. His consciousness was being buried alive under an increasingly berserk avalanche of concepts and ideas about which he had not the slightest understanding. He felt like a man beneath a toppled haystack. He’d lost all orientation and realized he was singularly ill equipped to deal with this state of affairs, and not by a long shot would he be able to control the situation enough to avoid disgrace and humiliation—to avoid, to put it plainly, ratting himself out.

They’d already toured the lumber station in the state-owned woods, the sawmill by the railroad terminal, and the furniture factory, and by the time they had finished their visit to the paper mill as well as some warehouse or another, the muddle in Dyzma’s head had grown to such a degree that he would’ve been glad to flee the scene right then and there. Looming before him was a towering mountain of incomprehensible business matters, bizarre and mysterious interconnections; he’d just met so many new people, these managers and directors, who spoke with such authority and with so many acronyms and abbreviations that Dyzma had managed to grasp nary a thing.


Excerpted from The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma: A Novel by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, translated from the Polish by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas and with an introduction by Benjamin Paloff.

The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma introduces an unemployed clerk who crashes an elite soiree, where he makes a crass remark that sets him on a new course. Soon high society—from government ministers to drug-fueled aristocrats—wants a piece of him, interpreting his simple vulgarity as strength and freshness. His willingness to do anything to hold on to power—political flip-flopping, inventing xenophobic plots, even having enemies assaulted—only leads to greater success. 

TADEUSZ DOŁĘGA-MOSTOWICZ (daw-WENG-ah maw-STOH-vich) was born in 1898 and began his writing career as a journalist. Kariera Nikodema Dyzma appeared serially in 1930–31 to great acclaim, establishing his reputation as a novelist. He published prolifically until his death in 1939.

EWA MALACHOWSKA-PASEK is Ladislav Matejka Collegiate Lecturer in Polish and Czech Studies at the University of Michigan.

MEGAN THOMAS is, with Ewa Malachowska-Pasek, the translator of Zofia Nalkowska’s Romance of Teresa Hennert.


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Excerpt from “The Passion According to G.H.” by Clarice Lispector

Born in western Ukraine, Clarice Lispector (1920–77) suffered in her early years from famine, war, and violent antisemitism. When her family arrived in Brazil in 1922, Clarice’s father made a living selling rags; her mother died a few years later. Her novels and stories—among them The Chandelier (1946), The Besieged City (1949), The Passion According to G.H. (1964), and The Stream of Life (1973)—explored her existential speculations in a brilliantly inventive, lyrical, and metaphorical style using interior monologues and stream of consciousness. This selection from The Passion According to G.H. was translated by Idra Novey and is part of the forthcoming Latin American Ecocultural Reader, edited by Gisela Heffes and Jennifer French. In it, the death of a cockroach sparks a metaphysical crisis and an expansion of consciousness beyond humanity.

*

Each eye reproduced the entire cockroach.

—Pardon me for giving you this, hand holding mine, but I don’t want this for myself! take that roach, I don’t want what I saw.

There I was open-mouthed and offended and withdrawn—faced with the dusty being looking back at me. Take what I saw: because what I was seeing with an embarrassment so painful and so frightened and so innocent, what I was seeing was life looking back at me.

How else could I describe that crude and horrible, raw matter and dry plasma, that was there, as I shrank into myself with dry nausea, I falling centuries and centuries inside a mud—it was mud, and not even dried mud but mud still damp and still alive, it was a mud in which the roots of my identity were still shifting with unbearable slowness.

Take it, take all this for yourself, I don’t want to be a living person! I’m disgusted and amazed by myself, thick mud slowly oozing.

That’s what it was—so that’s what it was. Because I’d looked at the living roach and was discovering inside it the identity of my deepest life. In a difficult demolition, hard and narrow paths were opening within me.

I looked at it, at the roach: I hated it so much that I was going over to its side, feeling solidarity with it, since I couldn’t stand being left alone with my aggression.

And all of a sudden I moaned out loud, this time I heard my moan. Because rising to my surface like pus was my truest matter—and with fright and loathing I was feeling that “I-being” was coming from a source far prior to the human source and, with horror, much greater than the human.

Opening in me, with the slowness of stone doors, opening in me was the wide life of silence, the same that was in the fixed sun, the same that was in the immobilized roach. And that could be the same as in me! if I had the courage to abandon . . . to abandon my feelings? If I had the courage to abandon hope.

Hope for what? For the first time I was astonished to feel that I’d based an entire hope on becoming something that I was not. The hope—what other name could I give it?—that for the first time I now was going to abandon, out of courage and mortal curiosity. Had hope, in my prior life, been based upon a truth? With childlike surprise, I was starting to doubt it.

To find out what I really could hope for, would I first have to pass through my truth? To what extent had I invented a destiny now, while subterraneously living from another?

I closed my eyes, waiting for the astonishment to pass, waiting for my panting to calm to the point that it was no longer that awful moan that I’d heard as if coming from the bottom of a dry, deep cistern, as the cockroach was a creature of a dry cistern. I was still feeling, at an incalculable distance within me, that moan that was no longer reaching my throat.

This is madness, I thought with my eyes closed. But it was so undeniable feeling that birth from inside the dust—that all I could do was follow something I was well aware wasn’t madness, it was, my God, the worse truth, the horrible one. But why horrible? Because without words it contradicted everything I used to think also without words.

I waited for the astonishment to pass, for health to return. But I was realizing, in an immemorial effort of memory, that I had felt this astonishment before: it was the same one I had experienced when I saw my own blood outside of me, and I had marveled at it. Since the blood I was seeing outside of me, that blood I was drawn to with such wonder: it was mine.

I didn’t want to open my eyes, I didn’t want to keep on seeing. It was important not to forget the rules and the laws, to remember that without the rules and laws there would be no order, I had to not forget them and defend them in order to defend myself.

But it was already too late for me to hold myself back.

The first bind had already involuntarily burst, and I was breaking loose from the law, though I intuited that I was going to enter the hell of living matter—what kind of hell awaited me? but I had to go. I had to sink into my soul’s damnation, curiosity was consuming me.

So I opened my eyes all at once, and saw the full endless vastness of the room, that room that was vibrating in silence, laboratory of hell.

The room, the unknown room. My entrance into it was finally complete.

The entrance to this room had a single passageway, and a narrow one: through the cockroach. The cockroach that was filling the room with finally open vibration, the vibrations of its rattlesnake tails in the desert. Through a painstaking route, I had reached the deep incision in the wall that was that room—and the crevice created a vast, natural hollow hall as in a cave.

Naked, as if prepared for the entrance of a single person. And whoever entered would be transformed into a “she” or “he.” I was the one the room called “she.” As I had gone in which the room had given a dimension of she. As if I too were the other side of the cube, the side that goes unseen when looked at straight on.

And in my great dilation, I was in the desert. How can I explain it to you? in the desert as I’d never been before. It was a desert that was calling me as a monotonous and remote canticle calls. I was being seduced. And I was going toward that promising madness. But my fear wasn’t that of someone going toward madness, but toward a truth—my fear was of having a truth that I’d come not to want, an infamizing truth that would make me crawl along and be on the roach’s level. My first contact with truths always defamed me.

—Hold my hand, because I feel that I’m going. I’m going once again toward the most divine primary life, I’m going toward a hell of raw life. Don’t let me see because I’m close to seeing the nucleus of life—and, through the cockroach that even now I’m seeing again, through this specimen of calm living horror, I’m afraid that in this nucleus I’ll no longer know what hope is.

The cockroach is pure seduction. Cilia, blinking cilia that keep calling.

I too, who was slowly reducing myself to whatever in me was irreducible, I too had thousands of blinking cilia, and with my cilia I move forward, I protozoan, pure protein. Hold my hand, I reached the irreducible with the inevitability of a death-knell—I sense that all this is ancient and vast, I sense in the hieroglyph of the slow roach the writing of the Far East. And in this desert of great seductions, the creatures: I and the living roach. Life, my love, is a great seduction in which all that exists seduces. That room that was deserted and for that reason primally alive. I had reached the nothing, and the nothing was living and moist.


Excerpted from The Latin American Ecocultural Reader, edited by Gisela Heffes and Jennifer French

A comprehensive anthology of literary and cultural texts about the natural world drawn from throughout the Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil, including both canonical figures and works as well as contemporary writing that illuminates the marginalized environmental cultures of women, indigenous, and Afro-Latin American populations.


JENNIFER FRENCH is a professor of Spanish at Williams College. She is the author of Nature, Neo-Colonialism, and the Spanish-American Regional Writers.

GISELA HEFFES is an associate professor of Latin American literature and culture at Rice University. She has published two monographs and four novels in Spanish.