Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

baba yaga

Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is part of Cannongate’s Myths series, where they asked contemporary writers to offer their version of an ancient story. The series began in 2006 and (I think) ended in 2014, featuring a stellar cast of international writers including Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Victor Pelevin, David Grossman…and Dubravka Ugresic. Ugresic’s take on the legend of Baba Yaga is typically idiosyncratic, divided into three discreet sections, each a completely different genre of writing – the first autobiographical, the second fiction, and the third academic – all exploring women in old age.

The first section focuses on Ugresic’s relationship with her mother. Her mother has a ‘cobweb’ in her brain:

“By ’cobweb’ she meant metastases to the brain, which had appeared seventeen years after a bout of breast cancer had been discovered in time and treated successfully.”

This makes it difficult for her recall certain common words causing strain in their relationship: “Some daughter if you can’t remember the bread spread stuff!” Ugresic also feels her mother is in denial about getting older and approaching death. She puts away all photographs of dead relatives – “I’d rather be in the company of the living” – and feels disappointed by the ageing of her friends:

“’She got so old,’ she said tersely a little later, as if spitting out a bitter morsel. Her friend was almost a year older than she was.”

Ugresic agrees to go to Varna, the city of her mother’s youth, with a Bulgarian academic and admirer of her work, Aba, who has also befriended her mother. Ugresic makes no attempt to portray herself in a good light as she becomes increasingly irritated by Aba who does not seem to able to organise anything to her satisfaction, and annoys her with knowing references to her writing:

“I snorted. Her use of the plural infuriated me. And her ‘we need to pick up a map of the city’ grated on my ear. Wasn’t she at home here? Why would she need a map?!”

WITmonth

Almost everything has changed since her mother was a child and the trip is a disappointment: “I had brought back nothing from my pilgrimage and received nothing in return.” It is perhaps for this reason that, in the second part of the book, Ugresic tells of three elderly women, Pupa, Beba and Kukla, taking a last trip to the Grand Hotel (Pupa, we know, is her mother’s housebound friend). These unlikely guests are determined to have the time of their lives, becoming involved in a number of comic adventures with a supporting male cast including American entrepreneur/conman Mr Shaker, and a young Bosnian with a permanent erection who is pretending to be a Turk under the name of Suleiman. Again the focus is on ageing: Shaker sells food supplements and Suleiman works at a Wellness clinic run by Dr Topolanek:

“In the first capitalist commotion, Topolanek realised that the easiest way to make money was out of human vanity.”

Shaker meanwhile, on the other side of the world, is “the king of an industry of magical powders and potions…what Mr Shaker actually sold was ideological hot air.” Pupa offers her own advice:

“Crap! Prolonging old age indeed! It’s youth you want to prolong, not old age!”

Ugresic is very good, again, on the effects of ageing on the body:

“Beba and her body lived in state of mutual intolerance. She could not remember exactly when the first hostile incident occurred.”

Of course, the book contains references to Baba Yaga throughout – but there is no need for me to comment on these as the third and final section does exactly this in a letter from Aba to the book’s editor, who has requested an expert opinion:

“As far as I gather from your accompanying letter, your author undertook to provide a text based on the myth of Baba Yaga. By the way, I was touched by your admission that you ‘don’t have a clue’ about Baba Yaga yourself.”

The analysis is exhaustive, to say the least – as Aba says herself, “I’m sure you won’t mind admitting that there was too much of everything. In fact, you were afraid at one point that I would never stop.” While such awareness of the reader’s reaction is amusing, I did find the final section trying – and, in fact, preferred the autobiographical opening to the story of Pupa, Beba and Kolka. This had the effect deteriorating enjoyment, though, of course, all the sections coexist as parts of a whole, and Ugresic is such a wonderful, witty writer that even when she is imitating dullness there is still pleasure to be had. Ugresic cleverly uses the myth of Baba Yaga as the starting point for a meditation of old age in women in a book that is funny, insightful, and, at times, moving.

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15 Responses to “Baba Yaga Laid an Egg”

  1. BookerTalk Says:

    I had no idea about this initiative – it has some prestigious participants

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s an interesting idea this retelling of old stories and myths – can be a bit hit or miss but sounds as though it works well here.

    I’m going to do my usual thing of dropping a film reference into my comments as I couldn’t help but think of it as I was reading your review. Have you seen Matteo Garrone’s Tales of Tales, a dark and twisted film based on 3 of the stories by the Italian writer Giambattista Basile? I liked it very much, especially the tales featuring Shirley Henderson and Toby Jones.

  3. bookbii Says:

    Oh I love the Canongate Myths series. I read most of them a couple of years ago (including this one) and they were all very good. I remember the Natsuo Kirino book The Goddess Chronicle being my favourite, though the Ali Smith is very good too. This one I recall being droll and witty but a little disappointing, largely because I had a massive childhood fondness for the Baba Yaga myth (thanks to the wonderful Joan Aitken) and she didn’t figure blatantly enough in the story for me.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’ve read the Ali Smith one but not Kirino – must check that out. I don’t know much about Baba Yaga beyond what I discovered here but I wonder if it suffers form Baba Yaga being more a character than a story.

      • bookbii Says:

        Possibly. Baba Yaga was a witch from Russian fairy stories. She had a mortar & pestle (I remember thinking these very exotic terms) and ate human flesh. She was quite exciting to me as a child, and the representation I think is quite innovative here but perhaps suffers from lack of familiarity and a story to build the character around. The Kirino is very good, though. She is an excellent writer.

      • 1streading Says:

        I think you’re also right about the lack of familiarity – re-tellings of anything work better when you know the story well.

  4. naomifrisby Says:

    How did I not know this book existed? I have a fascination with fairytales and have relatively recently discovered the Baba Yaga character. Thanks for covering this, Grant, it’s going on my list.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve not been grabbed so far by this series. The results seem paler often than the original myths, which are so rich. Plus I suspect the trying bits would try me more. Nice review as ever though Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, though with three parts you don’t have to read them all! I find the series interesting, but, as you say, only because of the power of the myths themselves. Such things generally don’t produce a writer’s best work either.

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