The Year in Translations (So Far): "Baba Yaga Laid an Egg" by Dubravka Ugresic
Earlier this week I was on the Wisconsin Public Radio show Here On Earth to make some international literature summer reading recommendations. We weren’t able to cover the full list of books I came up with, so I thought I’d post about them one-by-one over the next couple weeks with additional info, why these titles sound appealing to me, etc., etc. Click here for the complete list of posts.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson. (Croatia/Europe, Canongate)
OK, today is much busier than expected (it started with a fairly surreal interview with the Bay City Times at 8am this morning and will end with Atwood’s presentation tonight at 7pm), but I really don’t want to fall off my summer recommendation plan, so I’m going to cheat a bit . . . Rather than try and write a whole new set of reasons as to why you should check this out (and you should—it’s one of Dubravka’s best books), I’m just going to re-run the review I wrote of this a few months back.
Promise that all future write ups will be new material . . . Most of the other books I want to recommend haven’t been reviewed on the site anyway. But regardless, here goes:
This is an admittedly biased statement (disclaimer: the first book Open Letter published was Ugresic’s Nobody’s Home, and I was responsible for Dalkey’s publishing Thank You for Not Reading a few years back), but I honestly believe that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most interesting writers working today. Her books are consistently good, even across genres. The two aforementioned essay collections are spot-on, and her fiction — from The Museum of Unconditional Surrender to Lend Me Your Character to The Ministry of Pain — is always enjoyable, surprising, captivating, and envelope-pushing.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a perfect example of Ugresic’s fertile imagination. The latest entry in Canongate’s “Myths Series,” this novel is presumably a retelling of the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga — an old witch who lives in a house with chicken legs and kidnaps children. Which is why it’s surprising that the novel begins with the rather mundane situation of the writer returning home to visit her elderly mother and her mother’s hometown.
Actually, the novel technically opens with a preface about old women, entitled “At First You Don’t See Them . . .”:
Sweet little old ladies. At first you don’t see them. And then, there they are, on the tram, at the post office, in the shop, at the doctor’s surgery, on the street, there is one, there is another, there is a fourth over there, a fifth, a sixth, how could there be so many of them all at once?
The presence and machinations of old women is the thread that runs throughout this triptych. The second part — my personal favorite — is much more fairy-tale-like than the first, with tragic deaths and reunions with lost children. It takes place over a week at a resort hotel and centers on three women:
In a wheelchair sat an old lady with both feet tucked into a large fur boot. It would have been hard to describe the old lady as a human being; she was the remains of a human being, a piece of humanoid crackling. [. . .] The other one, the one pushing the wheelchair, was exceptionally tall, slender and of astonishingly erect bearing for her advanced years. [. . .] The third was a short breathless blonde, her hair ruined by excessive use of peroxide, with big gold rings in her ears and large breasts whose weight dragged her forward.
In its exacting descriptions and twisted plot machinations, this section is vintage Ugresic. (Of her previous work, this section is closest in tone and playfulness to the pieces in Lend Me Your Character.) It’s also the most vulgar of the three sections of Baba Yaga — which is kind of fun. Take this scene, where one of the elderly ladies is getting a massage at the hands of the marvelous Mevlo, who is the flipside of Hemingway’s Jake Barnes:
Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.
“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”
“Hang on, what are you talking about?”
“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”
“No,” lied Beba.
“It happened after the explosion. A Serbian shell exploded right beside me, fuck them all, and ever since then, it’s been standing up like this. My mates all teased me, why, Mevlo, they said, you’ve profited from the war. Not only did you get away with your life, but you got a tool taut as a gun. Me, a war profiteer? A war cripple, that’s what I am!”
If the second part is where Ugresic lets her comedic charms fly, the third is where she gets her postmodern on.
This section takes the form of a letter from a Dr. Aba Bagay (who appeared in part one) to the book’s editor, who is a bit confused as to how the first two sections of the book relate to the myth of Baba Yaga. So Bagay creates a “Baba Yaga for Beginners,” exploring the myth from a number of angles in a very scholarly way:
The elusive and capricious Baba Yaga sometimes appears as a helper, a donor, sometimes as an avenger, a villain, sometimes as a sentry between two worlds, sometimes as an intermediary between worlds, but also as a mediator between the heroes in a story. Most interpreters locate Baba Yaga in the ample mythological family of old and ugly women with specific kinds of power, in a taxonomy that is common to mythologies the world over.
Bagay’s scholarly apparatus is loaded with contradictions about the Baba Yaga myth and how it’s been interpreted and told. The one constant is the “old woman” bit, which is also the thread which runs throughout Ugresic’s novel, a novel that defies most novelistic conventions, that doesn’t so much retell the story of Baba Yaga as explode it into several very enjoyable fragments.