Olga Tokarczuk – The Ugliest Woman in the World
It may not be pleasant to have an ugly wife; but how grand would it be to have the ugliest woman in the world as a wife! Think of the conversation around the table at dinner parties. Any old fool can marry an ugly woman – and indeed, most of us do, for some reason or another – but the ugliest? To accomplish such a feat implies a certain skill, or worthiness, within the husband as much as the monstrosity. It takes panache.
The narrator, a circus impresario, lives a life accustomed to the strange, the bizarre, the ramshackle, the rejected. His bread and butter is the way of the circus, which is to say, the lifestyle of freaks and oddities, of tricks and magick. Tokarczuk, however, wastes little time in developing her narrator – her focus is, and remains, the ugliest woman in the world.
And who is this woman? Well:
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 tip 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.
She is, in other words, a gold mine.
The impresario discovers she has a personality and a mind beyond her ugliness; they become married, largely because, if they do so, then he will retain the rights to her likeness and the profits from her ugliness will remain comfortably his. But she's more than a monstrosity – unhappily, she is a person, too.
”You know,” she would say, stopping for a moment and fixing her eyes on a single faraway spot, “people are so fragile, so alone. I feel sorry for them as they sit there in front of me, staring at my face. It's as if they themselves are empty, as if they have to take a good look at something, fill themselves up with something. Sometimes I think they envy me. At least I'm something. They're so lacking in anything exceptional, so lacking in any specialness of their own.”
Tokarczuk is careful not to play her hand too early. The story is built from the start to appear as a moralistic tale, a story in which the narrator will come to learn the goodness behind the ugly – that beauty is skin deep, or more accurately, that ugliness is skin deep. But that's only the surface, for Tokarczuk is willing to take it further than that. The impresario becomes enamoured with the ugliness of his wife, much in the same way that a man might become enamoured with the beauty of his wife and forget the person beneath the skin. Again and again, the “monstrosity” is shown to be, really, quite an ordinary woman, with the same urges, desires, and hopes, as anyone else – but the impresario can't see it, because he expect UGLY, in the bright and glowing lights of the circus. He wants a travesty – he finds a woman.
...she told him she was pregnant. From then on he was a man divided. He wanted her to have a child just like herself – then they'd have even more contracts, even more invitations. If the need arose he'd be guaranteed a long livelihood, even if his wife died along the way. Perhaps he'd become famous?
At the end of the story, there is nothing for the woman to do but die. Tokarczuk knows that the situation she had developed is tenuous in the extreme, and untenable in any meaningful sense. The impresario cannot be trusted to act as a man must – to accept his responsibilities as a husband and father – and instead will surely fail the commitments he has made. Thus, the woman dies. Thus, the child dies.
The moral, then, is an upturned version of what one would expect from a story such as this. We expect – Tokarczuk reinforces our expectation – that this story will lead us to understand the emotional or intellectual beauty of the physically ugly, that we will come to understand that personality is more important than good looks, and so on. What we learn, instead, is that money bears no ill will to the ugly or the beautiful, that there is potential in everything, even the horrible, and that the certainty of a paycheck will cause a man to do terrible things.
The “Ugliest Woman in the World” proves to be a woman like any other. She has wants and desires, and to a small extent they are met. Largely, though, she is exploited, and what's worse is the reader is convinced to participate in the exploitation along with the narrator. After all, who can take a hideously ugly person seriously? They are something to be looked at, and perhaps caged. If one can make money from them, then so be it. For them to be human, an individual, with ordinary, similar, thoughts and feelings? Please.
The Ugliest Woman in the World by Olga Tokarczuk is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011
Other titles by Tokarczuk under review include:
---The Bean Prophecies
Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
---United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen - The Professionals
---United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary - The Heart Fails Without Warning
---Turkish: Üldes, Ersan - Professional Behaviour
---Swiss: Stefan, Verena - Doe a Deer
---Spanish: Catalan: Ibarz, Mercé - Nela and the Virgins
---Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique - Far From Here
---Slovenian: Jančar, Drago - The Prophecy
---Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir - One Minute: Dumbo's Death
---Russian: Gelasimov, Andre - The Evil Eye
---Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan - Goose Chase
---Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. - Six Tales
---Norwegian: Grytten, Frode - Hotel by a Railroad
---Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon - Desire
---Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen - Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
---Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian - Auntie Frosea
Index of titles by The Dalkey Archive Press under review
Index of short stories under review