Posts Tagged ‘Dubravka Ugresic’

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

August 3, 2016

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?!”


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.

Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life

March 6, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Dubravka Ugresic

With International Woman’s Day approaching, it seems an opportune time to read “a representative piece of women’s writing”, as Dubravka Ugresic playfully refers to her novella Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life. Ugresic begins by drawing comparisons between the type-writer and the sewing machine and goes on to structure her novella through the extended metaphor of creating a garment. Each chapter refers to a stage in the tailoring process – for example pleating, hemming and pinning – and is also marked with various lines symbolising further actions like cutting, gathering or smocking. Though my knowledge of sewing is extremely limited, it is clear that some thought has gone into this. For example each chapter is prefaced by a short piece of domestic advice, and each of these is marked out to be cut as they are not necessary to the story. More amusingly, other sections are marked to be stretched (“The text may be resized in any direction in case of unfulfilled expectations”) or to be taken in (“The text may be taken in as required with critical darts”). The subtitles also seem apt – the chapter entitled ‘Steffie meets some men’ is linked to “concealed button fastenings”, and, while I can’t quiet explain why this is appropriate, it is.

Ugresic’s humorous approach to ‘women’s writing’ can be seen from the prologue, ‘Designing the Garment’, where under the heading ‘Material’, she prints a series of letters addressed to an agony aunt, finally alighting on Steffie’s letter as the raw material for her fabric / fabrication:

“I am twenty five years old and a typist by profession. I live with my aunt. I don’t think I’m very attractive, but some people tell me I am. I’m different from everybody my age: they’re all married or have boyfriends, and I have no-one. I’m lonely and sad and don’t know what to do.”

In the first chapter Steffie is overcome by despair when shelling peas (you don’t have to take my word for it, each chapter title provides a neat summary). When she seeks the advice of her friends, they offer the same solution:

“…a guy’s the most important thing in a girl’s life.”

Although Mariana tells her that “there are a million ways to catch a guy”, it turns out that there are only three: clothes (Steffie falls asleep while reading a fashion magazine); figure (Steffie diets but loses no weight at all); and make up (her aunt tells her a story about a woman who used match ends to line her eyes and blinded herself – though, to be fair, this is one of the few women who survive her aunt’s stories). Despite this lack of success, Steffie does meet some men – a truck driver, a he-man, and an intellectual. All are inadequate in various amusing ways (perhaps it’s because I am a man that this was my favourite chapter), and Steffie attempts to free herself from the need for male company by embracing culture, acquiring a pet, and learning a foreign language.

The novella has a wonderful lightness of tone that belies its serious examination of sexual politics and, in particular, the way in which women can attempt to define themselves through men. Ugresic uses the tricks of post-modernism with an enchanting joie de vivre, not only intervening herself in the story more than once (“Poor Steffie Cvek! One slap in the face after another!”), but providing us with a series of endings, including one chapter where her mother, her aunt and two other women discuss how the story would have continued, and a final section of what Alasdair Gray calls ‘critic fuel’, discussing her intentions and inspirations.

Ugresic has suffered in English from being unable to retain a single publisher, though this seems to be largely because she is too interesting, restlessly searching for new ways to write. This would strike me as a very good place to begin to become acquainted with her.

Danger rating: despite my lowest ever mark at school being for sewing, I was able to escape with all my fingers intact. Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life is translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Dalkey Archive Press in a volume with some equally entertaining short stories, Lend Me Your Character.