BEF 2011/12 – The Ugliest Woman in the World [Poland]

25/03/2011

She had a large head covered in growths and lumps.  Her small, ever-tearing eyes were set close under her low, furrowed brow.  From a distance they looked like narrow chinks.  Her nose looked as if it was broken in many places, and its lip was a livid blue, covered in sparse bristles.  Her mouth was huge and swollen, always hanging open, always wet, with some sharply pointed teeth inside it.  To top it all off, as if that wasn’t enough, her face sprouted long, straggling, silken hairs.

The above is a description of the eponymous character from Olga Tokarczuk’s story The Ugliest Woman in the World.  The story tells of a circus impresario seeing this woman performing (that is, standing before an audience to shock them with her face) and becoming fascinated by her, marrying her and exploiting her in his own production.  This is a story of repugnance and redemption that plays with a reader’s sympathies.

The description of the woman comes early in the piece, but not before the opening sentence, “He married the ugliest woman in the world.”  The story opens with uncertainty.  Does he love the woman and thus is able to see beyond her terrible features, or is the marriage a matter of expediency, a means to an end?  The answer is soon clear.  The impresario is a man of grand plans.  He envisions a tour, taking his disgusting wife not only around Europe but to South America, and beyond.

Tokarczuk’s strength lies in showing her ugly protagonist as comfortable in her own skin.  The impresario spies on her and sees her sunbathing and plaiting her hair, and one can almost sense his confusion.  Shouldn’t such a repulsive creature be thrashing about and moaning and lamenting their fate?  Isn’t darkness and gloom her proper environment?  He is affronted by her sanguinity.

For all her equanimity, our impresario is agitated.  He frequents bars and often comes home drunk.  He is licentious, capricious, venal.  She complains about his behaviour and he punches her in the stomach (because, we are told, he still can’t bear to touch her face).  The two of them seem to be in a competition to revolt the reader, but it is a curious morality that awards the woman the victor.

In his wife the impresario recognises the physical manifestation of his own immorality.

It was as though he had discovered a secret  – that everyone is in disguise, that human faces are just masks, the whole of life one bug Venetian ball.  Sometimes he drunkenly fantasized – because he never allowed himself this sort of nonsense when sober – that he was removing the masks, and with a gentle crack of glued-on paper they were revealing…what?  He didn’t know…He was afraid that one day he’d give in to his bizarre temptation and start trying to scratch the ugliness off her face.  His fingers would rummage in her hair, seeking out the hidden edges, the straps and the strips of glue.

He knows, were he to remove her mask, he would find his own face beneath it.

The story’s finest moment comes with the death of the ugly woman and their child.  A university professor comes to perform a post-mortem on them and, with all the plaintive desperation of a man who loses everything in a stock market crash,  the impresario cries, “Save them!”  He who profited from her ugliness, who beat his wife and who, in just a moment, will sell her corpse and that of their child to a clinic to be stuffed – does he repent in the end and want his family back?  Or does he see his plans of a lucrative future exploiting their wretched forms in Buenos Aires, Petersburg, New York now lost to him?  Few will choose the former, most will choose the latter, but I read a third meaning in his cry.  The impresario reaches out for his own salvation.  He despairs of his own wicked ways and seeks forgiveness, redemption.  He came to identify himself with his wife’s ugliness: it sustained him financially even as it unveiled him in all his ignominy.  Not “Save them!”, rather, “Save me!”

Did I say this is a story of redemption?  No, there is none to be found, though our impresario would have it otherwise, however fleeting his repentance.  Nor is pity for her affliction the appropriate response for, from her perspective, the ugliest woman is just a woman.  It is sympathy with her “condition” that makes her a monster, the spectator that makes her a spectacle, as Tokarczuk shows in the following passage:

He liked to look at her when she didn’t know he was watching…She used to sunbathe, and while she did she’d spend ages slowly combing her straggly hair…Or else she would crochet, the needles glittering in the sunlight as they stabbed at the noisy air of the circus.  Or, in a loose shirt, with her arms bare, she would launder her clothes in a washtub.  The skin on her arms and upper chest was covered in pale fur.  It looked pretty.  Soft, like an animal’s.

The irony is, of course, that the real spectacle has all along been the impresario.  We watch him watch her.  He is fascinated with her precisely because her ugliness is like a mirror to his heart.  He is a sideshow Narcissus unaware that he is, in fact, the main attraction.

‘The Ugliest Woman in the World’ is translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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6 Responses to “BEF 2011/12 – The Ugliest Woman in the World [Poland]”

  1. Harry Elliot Says:

    An unreliable narrator? Such preoccupation with superficiality bores me. Ugliness builds character and promises (and usually delivers) great love. Not to embrace this love, shows the impresario a fool, redemption irrelevant. (to my way of thinking, David)

  2. David J Single Says:

    His redemption is hopeless, but he snatches at it anyway. He would agree with you, in the end. After all, the story ends with his wife and child stuffed and exhibited in a museum.

  3. Kalyango Says:

    She deserves.


  4. […] it will smash your’s to smithereens, I offer no further deconstruction. That can be found here by David J. […]


  5. Great little review, David. Thanks.


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