Baba Yaga Laid an Egg Paperback – May 1 2010
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Ugrasic's retelling may be blisteringly postmodern in its execution but at its heart is a human warmth and even a silliness that infuses it with the sweet magic of storytelling. -- Melissa Katsoulis * The Times * Packed with intellectual surprises and emotional revelations -- Tina Jackson * The Metro * The message that old crones are the product of "long-lived, labyrinthine, fertile, profoundly misogynistic but also cathartic work of the imagination" is expressed with humour, eloquence and anger. -- Alyssa McDonald * New Statesman * Ugresic has a unique tone of voice, a madcap wit and a lovely sense of the absurd. Ingenious. -- Marina Warner She is a writer to follow. A writer to be cherished. * Susan Sontag * Ugresic is sharp, funny and unfazed in the face of the little dictators who have torn apart her former country. Orwell would be proud. -- Timothy Garton-Ash on THE MINISTRY OF PAIN Contains some of the most profound reflections on culture, memory and madness you wiill ever read. -- Carole Angier on THE MINISTRY OF PAIN * Independent *
About the Author
Dubravka Ugresic has published both novels and books of essays
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So declares the narrator of the first section of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugresic's tough and witty novel on the theme of the famous witch. This narrator has traveled from Zagreb to Varna, her ageing mother's home town, and is supposed to bring home pictures. She's depressed by the city, which she knew as a teenager before the war but can no longer recognize, and by an annoying friend of her mother's who won't leave her alone--a young woman who's just received her PhD in folklore. Fairytales, the narrator believes, miss the point: domestic folklorists are "generally closet nationalists," while foreign ones exploit war zones, enthusiastically studying the "new" folklore of hatred. The victims of that hatred are "of little interest to anyone."
The narrator of this first part of the three-part novel is prickly, impatient, caustic--and right. There is something syrupy about the study of folklore. The brilliance of the novel lies in the way it rescues Baba Yaga from the syrup. Ugresic explores Baba Yaga's intractability, foulness and grandeur, uncovers her divine origins, refigures her as a radical "dissident," and above all makes her speak for those "of little interest to anyone"--old women.
Although there is overlap between them, each of the three sections of the book has its own flavor and set of preoccupations (and, in a genius move, its own translator). Part One stars our no-nonsense narrator and her wonderful, exasperating mother, who suffers from mild dementia. Part Two has a lighter tone, and is set at a hotel where three old women, including the mother from Part One, have gone for a holiday. This section reads most like a fairytale, featuring a casino windfall, a melancholy masseur with a perpetual erection, a grandchild who pops up as suddenly as Thumbelina, and a death by golf ball. Despite its exuberance, this section resists becoming sentimental or cute; it's here, where female old age is seen through the eyes of elderly women, that the humor is at its most lacerating. Here's Beba, the mother from Part One, on the subject:
"On the other hand, what is left for women when they stumble into old age? One rarely sees those few fortunate ones with übermensch genes, such as that crone of Hitler's, Leni Riefenstahl, who lived to be a hundred and one, and showed everyone the meaning of 'the triumph of the will'!... [M]ost are left with the 'old-lady in good-health look.' These are desexualised old hags with short, masculine haircuts, dressed in light-coloured windcheaters and pants, not differentiated in any way from their male contemporaries, and noticed only when they are in a group."
Part Three, written by the folklorist from Part One, is a delicious catalog of Baba Yaga lore, which many people on Amazon and Goodreads seem to find irritating and/or dull. I SO DISAGREE. Ok, it's a bit arch at times (those references to "your author," who is the author of the first two parts of the book, who may be Ugresic or another character, nudge-wink-pomo-shenanigans), but it's also packed with mystery, dazzling and terrifying images, brutal history, enticing snippets of stories, and a vibrant feminist politics. For me, it's an essential part of the novel. Like the three old women, Beba, Pupa and Kukla, the three sections of this book need each other.
Baba Yagas of the World, Unite!
And so too are the starlings to my mothers great dismay. The noise is bad enough, but the mess they make would drive my mother crazy. She could not stand anything unclean or untidy in her home. But cleanliness was not her only battle, she was losing her words and becoming mixed up from Alzheimer's.
At the Grand Hotel three old women are checking in, how long they stay is up to fate. The oldest is confined to a wheelchair, wearing a single large boot with both legs tucked inside. The next is an exceptionally tall woman who seems to always carry a breeze about her; she also carries a string of dead husbands behind her. The last is a short grey haired woman with big bosoms and an equally big heart.
But what has any of this to do with Baba Yaga, a witch who flies about in a mortar, all but blind with only her great sense of smell to lead her as she moves about the world for good deeds or ill, making mischief at her will. As a woman of great power, Baba Yaga has the ability to alter her size or her shape, often taking the form of a bird. And isn't it birds who lay eggs...
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is an utterly unique story retelling the myth of Baba Yaga in a distinctive style that is free of traditional form. The story of Baba Yaga is a story of women; mothers, daughters and lovers.
Traditionally Baba Yaga is an old woman so it is no surprise that the leading characters here are themselves old woman. But it is not just ageing that is central to the issues in this book but also femininity and identity that is questioned. A story recommended only for those who are willing to put in the effort to get to know this old and startling witch known as Baba Yaga.
"In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body."
This book was recommended to me because of course I love (and fear) Baba Yaga. It is part of series in which authors were asked to write based on an ancient myth. This is a post modernist deconstruction of the Slavic witch, by turns amusing, irritating, confusing, and illuminating. As the book says "...while Baba Yaga may not be Oprah Winfrey or Princess Dina, she isn't a completely obscure mythical nonentity either."
I don't know how Baba Yaga came into my childhood. No doubt through books of Russian fairy tales, and the realization that my grandparents were Russian, if Jews (all the more reason to fear her oven.)
This novel is set after the civil wars in the Balkans, after the collapse of the Soviets, after the break up of Yugoslavia. An author takes care of her dying mother and fulfills her wish to travel to Bulgaria, a young graduate student type dogs her steps, a tale within a tale presents three very old women at a spa/casino, and at the end there is a fake/real critical look at all the stories, plus a huge overview of Baba Yaga in numerous mythologies. It is perhaps a bit much, self-conscious, but actually quite satisfying.
It isn't easy to meet a witch and live to tell the tale.
For reviews by Miriam Sagan visit Miriam's Well [...]
I came to the novel via the appendix to the book 'Russian Magic Tales' whose author i looked up. On her site i read a strong invitation to read this novel. I was able to download it on Kindle and start reading. ( I enjoy both paper and kindle).