Dr. Jose­f’s Lit­tle Beauty

  • Review
By – June 3, 2024

This is a book that repels you.” So begins the quo­ta­tion print­ed inside the cov­er of the Eng­lish paper­back edi­tion of Dr. Josef’s Lit­tle Beau­ty. Indeed, award-win­ning Pol­ish nov­el­ist Zyta Rudz­ka con­stant­ly and casu­al­ly shows us how time rav­ages her char­ac­ters, res­i­dents of a retire­ment home near War­saw over the course of a long, hot sum­mer. Skulls thin­ly coat­ed in sparse, dry hair,” she writes. Faces like sev­er­al pieces of skin sewn togeth­er. Cheeks marked with bruis­es, wounds and sup­pu­rat­ing scratch­es. Tis­sue-paper eye­lids. Bel­lies swollen by dis­ease. Fur­rowed hands. Gnarled fin­gers. Ruf­fled thighs.… Growths. Lumps. Watery tumors.” No mat­ter how much these char­ac­ters assert their human­i­ty, the author keeps remind­ing us to see the hor­rif­ic cages of their bodies.

But for a book that makes such a spec­ta­cle of the body, very lit­tle comes to pass. The res­i­dents talk about their pasts, lament their presents, and treat each oth­er with ten­der­ness — but even more often with cru­el­ty. At its best, the book has a sub­tle, Woolfi­an sense of nar­ra­tive move­ment. Tem­per­a­tures rise, plants grow, bod­ies change: The res­i­dents were mov­ing away from them­selves.” Some­times, though, the book’s for­mal choic­es are hard­er to inter­pret. A pas­sage in which the res­i­dents recall their favorite kinds of cher­ries — for­bid­den in the retire­ment home because of their haz­ardous pits — appears twice, sev­en­ty pages apart. The pas­sage seems to fit in both places; maybe the author is show­ing us how the res­i­dents repeat themselves.

In fact, these char­ac­ters do talk a lot, though rarely because they’ve been asked. Those who say noth­ing are regard­ed with sus­pi­cion; the only thing oth­er res­i­dents ask them is Why don’t you ever talk?” Well, it isn’t easy to get a word in edge­wise. The res­i­dents have to carve out space for them­selves amid all the impromp­tu speech­es; they talk past one anoth­er and try to bul­ly each oth­er into shut­ting up. But the effort is worth it, because they absolute­ly need to be heard. They were some­bod­ies once. They want the record to show that their spous­es were abu­sive or indif­fer­ent or that their kids are cold. 

When they were chil­dren, they all suf­fered the pri­va­tions of war. Hele­na and Leoka­dia are Jew­ish sis­ters who pre­tend­ed to be twins in Auschwitz in order to sur­vive. Josef Men­gele per­formed exper­i­ments” on Helena’s arm, which even­tu­al­ly with­ered and had to be ampu­tat­ed. But what Hele­na wants to talk about now is how beau­ti­ful she used to be — how the doc­tor loved her long, wavy, auburn hair and per­fect skin. She proud­ly refers to her­self as Miss Auschwitz.”

To Rudz­ka, remem­ber­ing is always a kind of boast­ing, even for char­ac­ters who are less out­ward­ly vain than Hele­na. And what they are boast­ing about is hav­ing a past — how­ev­er awful — where they can go to escape the hell of the present. Rudzka’s char­ac­ters are trapped, and they are des­tined to tor­ture each oth­er for the rest of their lives. Some show signs of demen­tia, but they trace the land­scapes of their pasts with great specificity. 

Leoka­dia, a per­pet­u­al opti­mist, advis­es her sis­ter not to dwell on the past, but to focus on the nat­ur­al world, the things grow­ing all around them. While she doesn’t prat­tle on as much as the oth­er res­i­dents, Leoka­dia her­self isn’t immune to the lure of the old days. She remem­bers that toward the end of his life, her hus­band, slip­ping into senil­i­ty, put on his camp uni­form and ordered her to stand at atten­tion, barked out com­mands, and abused her men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly. A cap­tive as a child, he now rel­ished play­ing the role of the tor­tur­er, and Leoka­dia will­ing­ly sub­mit­ted to his cha­rade. She under­stood him, he wasn’t long­ing for the camp, he was miss­ing child­hood, even one spent amid lice, nits, and on all fours.” 

Rudz­ka teach­es us that it isn’t such a para­dox that her char­ac­ters dwell on their bru­tal pasts in order to escape their mis­er­able old age. They con­sid­er the retire­ment home a kind of camp, one with cru­el cap­tors, the con­stant pres­ence of death, and food that chokes more than it sus­tains. Rudzka’s char­ac­ters, how­ev­er repul­sive they are to read­ers and one anoth­er, are wise enough to know that you can’t let go of the past or even ful­ly under­stand it. The best you can do is relive it with as much dig­ni­ty as possible.

Jason K. Fried­man is the author of the sto­ry col­lec­tion Fire Year, which won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fic­tion and the Anne and Robert Cow­an Writ­ers Award. His arti­cle on the Solomon Cohen fam­i­ly, pub­lished in Moment mag­a­zine, won an Amer­i­can Jew­ish Press Asso­ci­a­tion Award. He lives in San Fran­cis­co, with his hus­band, film­mak­er Jef­frey Friedman.

Discussion Questions