31 August 09 | Chad W. Post

This won’t be available in the States until next spring, but Dubravka Ugresic’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is already getting some great press in the UK, such as this piece in the London Review of Books by Marina Warner:

Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is the latest, most inventive and most substantial volume in Canongate’s series of revisioned myths. [. . .]

During the Soviet era, as Ugrešić has said, the use of traditional material gave writers freedom because it appeared to conform to the populist and nationalist policies of the state. (Lenin had claimed that folktales could be used as the basis for ‘beautiful studies about the hopes and longings of our people’.) An authentic proletarian background, supposed naivety and a child audience could also provide a cloak for subversive thoughts and political criticism; fabulist metaphors were hard to censor. Platonov’s fables, such as the story ‘Among Animals and Plants’ and the novella Soul, use the apparent innocence of the folktale form to indict the conditions of existence in Soviet Russia (though he didn’t escape censure). The same stratagems were used by Miroslav Holub in Czechoslovakia and Danilo Kis in Yugoslavia.

Ugrešić has been circling this territory for a while. In her new book, the tradition of upside-down, modernist myth-making or ironical fable has freed her tongue. Skittish at times, affectionately comic, and lavish with improbable and ingenious fairy-tale plotting, her handling of the genre is deft and light. In Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Ugrešić is in much higher spirits than in her recent collection of essays, Nobody’s Home (2007), or her withering attack on the book trade, Thank You for Not Reading (2003), or her ironic and prophetic fictions, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998) and The Ministry of Pain (2005).

Baba Yaga is the true Witch of the North, the supreme scare figure of the Russian nursery, a monstrous old hag who haunts children and eats them. She doesn’t exactly appear in character here, but she hovers off stage, and directs the action. Old women are Ugrešić’s heroines and old womanhood her theme. This new book is a hybrid work, a comic fable in three parts, combining autobiography, travel, memoir, fable, satire and essay. It begins with an elegy about her own mother’s decline into dementia; hoping to reawaken her mother’s memories, Ugrešić makes a pilgrimage to Sofia, her mother’s hometown, seeing herself as a bedel (the double who rich men used to pay to go to Mecca or fight in the army in their stead). But when she returns with photographs and anecdotes, her mother doesn’t recognise present-day Sofia. This is Ugrešić’s territory: the impossibility of belonging, the ineluctability of loss and the desirability, even so, of remaining apart.

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