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Monday, January 28, 2019

BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski

Originally published in 1970.

I did not know this was a novel until just a few months ago when I found my copy of this book in a thrift shop. I was familiar with the 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers in an Academy Award-nominated performance, but had no idea it was originally a book.

A little research has told me that this book has a troubled history. The author, Jerzy Kosinski, plagiarized the book. The original book was a Polish author from the 1920's and 1930's named Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz.  He died at the beginning of World War II while fighting the Soviet Union during the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland in 1939. His book was called The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma

Being There follows the adventures of Chance, an uneducated gardener who works for an elderly rich man. Chance is probably on the autistic spectrum and has grown up in the rich man's household. He knows nothing about the outside world except for what he has seen on television. However, he has an intuitive understanding of gardening and nature.

When the old man dies, Chance is evicted from his home by the estate's lawyers and heads out into the wide open world for the first time in his life with a suitcase full of fine suits taken from the rich man's closet. When he is struck by a car, he tells the car's owners that he is Chance the gardener, but they think his name is Chauncey Gardner and assume he is a rich businessman on a trip based on his clothing and his suitcase.

When asked anything, Chauncey can only answer with what he knows - gardening. His observations on the comings and going of the seasons and how they relate to the relative health of his garden are interpreted as sophisticated commentary on politics and economics and soon he is catapulted to the heights of politics.

The movie is pretty faithful to the book. I always think of Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner when a new politician breaks onto the scene and people throw their support behind him or her based on a few words and the assumption that they share a similar world view. I think our last two presidents made a lot of political hay out of this phenomenon.

This is a short book with a powerful lesson about confirmation bias (hearing what you want to hear when confronted with new information so that it confirms what you already believe).

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: BEING THERE by Jerzy Kosinski.

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