Das Wunschbild: A Fable for our Times,
This review is from: Being There (Black Swan) (Paperback)
I first became aware of this book as the basis for the remarkable film starring Peter Sellers and Melvyn Douglas. Kosinski's book, however, is just as remarkable in its own right.
The hero of the book is Chance, a mentally retarded adult who works as the gardener at the home of a wealthy retired New York lawyer. During the whole of his adult life, Chance has never left the house and garden; his only contact with the outside world is through television, which he watches obsessively. His life changes, however, when his employer dies, the house is sold and he is forced to leave. Chance is slightly injured when he is hit by a car belonging to Elizabeth Eve ("EE"), the wife of Benjamin Rand, a rich and influential Wall Street financier and a friend of the President. EE, mishearing "Chance the gardener" as "Chauncey Gardiner" and mistakenly believing Chance to be a successful businessman, invites him to stay with her and her husband at their home. A series of misunderstandings leads all concerned to believe that Chance is not only a businessman but also an economic prophet. He is invited to speak on national television where he talks about the only thing he understands, gardening. A series of platitudes about the changing of the seasons in the garden is taken to be an extended metaphor forecasting an upturn in the economy, and his supposed optimism strikes a chord with the viewing public. The book ends with the elderly, terminally ill, Rand about to name Chance as his heir and successor, and the President about to nominate him as his vice-presidential running-mate.
The book is short, a novella rather than a novel, of around 100 pages. The style is direct, simple and like a fable. It has been interpreted as a satire on the role of television in the modern age or on the American political system. Those elements are certainly present and were emphasised more in the film than in the book. (In Britain the film was widely taken to be a direct attack on the Reagan administration, even though it was actually made during the Carter years but not released here until after the presidential election). The significance of the book, however, is a deeper one.
In the film, Peter Sellers portrayed Chance as a lonely, pitiable character in late middle age, young only by comparison with his aged employer and the ageing Rand. It is an affecting performance, but subtly different from the Chance of Kosinski's book. Kosinski's Chance is relatively young, good-looking and emotionally detached from his surroundings. This detachment allows others to treat him as what in German would be called a Wunschbild, that is to say a picture of one's wishes, a blank canvas onto which one can paint one's own desires. Each of the other characters sees in the supposed Chauncey Gardiner whatever he or she wishes to see. Rand, who has no children with EE and who is estranged from the children of his first marriage, sees him as a potential successor to his business empire and almost as an adopted son. EE, sexually frustrated in a marriage to a much older man, sees him as a lover and a possible second husband after Rand's death. The President sees him as the ideal candidate for Vice-President, a position he has been struggling to fill. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN sees him as a liberal, Russophile capitalist who will use his influence to further east-west relations. The American TV audience see him as the man who will lead them out of recession and into prosperity.
The book certainly is, in part, a commentary on the television age. It certainly is, in part, a political satire. (We can all think of politicians who have the ability to be all things to all men). Most importantly, however, it is a brilliant fable on the human capacity for self-delusion and for seeing others not for what they are but for what we would wish them to be.