Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg sits in the modernist tradition of turning villains and minor characters into antiheros; sympathy for the devil goes back to Milton. Our demon is Baba Yaga, the hag witch of Slavic folklore, who eats small children for lunch and gives gifts of wisdom to wandering young heroes after an ordeal or two.
The book’s first two sections are narratives focusing on old women. In the first section, the protagonist is a writer caring for her elderly mother who strives to maintain dignity with dementia. Where Baba Yaga is an infamous slob, the writer’s mother is obsessively neat; cleaning serves as or substitutes for affection. Where Baba Yaga is demonically clever, the writer’s mother is losing words to a slowly growing brain tumor, and even when she had her faculties was partial to aphorisms and cliches. While she shows the horrors of age in inverse fashion to Baba Yaga, she gives her daughter a gift; cranky and cold in her prime, she enables her daughter to show love, in a stilted and inarticulate fashion, in her decline.
In the second half of the first section, the writer travels to her hometown in Bulgaria accompanied by a younger woman, a scholar of folklore who is an obsequious fangirl bordering on stalker. The writer is taking the trip as a surrogate for her mom, hoping to recapture some feeling, but the post-iron curtain seaside town is grim and tawdry.
I’m not sure what to make of the anomie of this section; something about the anti-romance of the past in post-Soviet Central Europe. Maybe something about the disconnect of generations imposed by history and politics; the writer’s mom dealt with cataclysm by being relentlessly ordinary; the writer character is somewhat embittered by her dissidence and exile; the younger academic is left with a pale simulacrum of nationalism and alienation from biological and adopted families.
The anti-romance of the past takes a comic and ribald turn in the second section of the book, which migrates the Weird Sisters to a postwar resort in the Czech Republic. To the hotel clerk, the three elderly unmarried ladies look alike; as the story progresses, the characters reveal individual personality and individual history, each with her own tragedies, losses and secrets. Far from controlling fate, the three women’s lives have been shaped by history’s events and their own mistakes.
In the Baba Yaga legend, an old female character is isolated and alien; these three women take care of each other. Baba Yaga eats small children with her iron teeth; these old women take care of children after lifetimes of parenting failures and misadventures. The stereotype of old age is of stasis and decline, but the tale in this chapter shows older people continuing to change while they can.
Where the Baba Yaga legend mocks female old age, this chapter ridicules older men, portraying a series of pompous, egoistic schemers. Baba Yaga is old and hideous; but modern society is obsessed with trying to preserve female youth and beauty. Dubravka Ugresic sees the spa as an emblem of the vapidity of post-Soviet Central Europe. “In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body.”
This chapter comes the closest to feminist antihero fan fictions about characters such as Lilith and Vashti, taking bit-character villains and turning them into main characters. But it doesn’t adopt the feminist cliche of turning the villain into a hero. Buba, the character whose consciousness the narrative follows, is ridiculous; she is not very bright or articulate, she has a good heart but is clumsy and insecure. Dubravka Ugresic inverts villains into characters that are ordinary and imperfect.
The third section of the book is in the voice of the fangirl academic who expatiates on Baba Yaga folklore at tedious length. This is postmodern conceptual art; it’s mocking the dry irrelevance of the academic cataloging species of premodern horrors and resisting the temptations of scholarly explication. At the same time, it is Ugresic’s sly chance to caption the photographs in case the reader missed the meanings; the hag as icon for female old age; as projection of mysogynist fears; as the degraded image of the Goddess defeated by Patriarchy (Here’s a writeup of a book group discussion focusing on these themes with Timmi Duchamp, editor of Aqueduct Press, a publishing house for feminist science fiction.
The thing is, while Ugresic pre-emptively incorporates and mocks her interpreter, she also invokes her own interpretation in the narrative sections, repeating and self-consciously questioning figures of eggs, birds, and flowers; beauty and tawdriness; eloquence and dumbness, magic and prose. She’s warning us off of interpretation but herself can’t stay away.
In the age of the internet, the traditional form of the book review is dead; but people still haven’t gotten the memo. In Goodreads, there are 28 “reviews” of the book, taking the form of a brief outline and summary, perhaps a quote, and then the author’s declaration of opinion. The form assumes that the reader hasn’t read the book, needs an introduction, but wants to avoid spoilers. The obsolete form is particularly annoying with this book which invites and resists its own explication.