Thanks to Lauren Wein for sending me a galley of Dubravka Ugresic’s latest book, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. (Which is translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson.) This was released in the UK not too long ago (and has been receiving some great reviews) and will be available here in the States in, well, um, February. (Publishing time can be so whack . . .)
This is part of the Canongate/Grove “The Myths Series” and is working with the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga, a “witch who lives in a house built on chicken legs and kidnaps small children.” According to the jacket copy, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is about four women: “a writer who grants her dying mother’s final wish by traveling to her hometown in Bulgaria, an elderly woman who wakes up every day hoping to die, a buxom blonde hospital worker who’s given up on love, and a serial widow who harbors a secret talent for writing.”
Expect a full review in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s the opening:
You don’t see them at first. Then suddenly a random detail snags your attention like a stray mouse: an old lady’s handbag, a stocking slipping down a leg, bunching up on a bulging ankle, crocheted gloves on the hands, a little old-fashioned hat perched on the head, sparse grey hair with a blue sheen. The owner of the blued hair moves her head like a mechanical dog and smiles wanly . . .
Yes, at first they are invisible. They move past you, shadow-like, they peck at the air in front of them, tap, shuffle along the asphalt, mince in small mouse-like steps, pull a cart behind them, clutch at a walker, stand surrounded by a cluster of pointless sacks and bags, like a deserter from the army still decked out in full war gear. A few of them are still ‘in shape,’ wearing a low-cut summer dress with a flirtatious feather boa flung across the shoulders, in an old half-motheaten Astrakhan, her make-up all smeary (who, after all, can apply make-up properly while peering through spectacles?!).
They roll by you like heaps of dried apples. They mumble something into their chins, conversing with invisible collo-cutors the way American Indians speak with the spirits. They ride buses, trams and the subway like abandoned luggage; they sleep with their heads drooping onto their chests; or they gawk around, wondering which stop to get off at, or whether they should get off at all. Sometimes you linger for a moment (for only a moment!) in front of an old people’s home and watch them through the glass walls: they sit at tables, move their fingers over leftover crumbs as if moving across a page of Braille, sending someone unintelligible messages.
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?!
Dubravka really is one of the best . . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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