Baba Yaga is a text that is read, studied, told, adapted, interpreted and reinterpreted differently at different times.Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is another addition to the Canongate Myth Series, which is devoted to “bold retellings of legendary tales”. I’ve been following the series for some years now, and so I wanted to read this book for that reason alone. But my interested in Ugrešić was rekindled a few months ago when the book won the James Tiptree, Jr Award, “an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender”.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is only a retelling of a myth if we use “retelling” in the broadest possible sense of the word. The book is divided into three sections: the first (my favourite) tells the story of the narrator’s relationship with her ageing mother, who has been diagnosed with dementia and doesn’t have long to live. The much more bizarre section two is about three women, all of whom would be considered older (but who are in fact of very different ages), spending a holiday at a spa abroad. Finally, section three is not a story at all but a long essay, written by a folklorist we meet in section one, about the myth of Baba Yaga and its relationship with sections one and two of the book.
If that sounds unusual, it’s because it is. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a daring book – it’s the kind of book that doesn’t so much break as bulldozers the fourth wall; the kind of book for which the terms “metafiction” and “post-modern” were invented. Although highly experimental fiction of this sort can go either way for me (see my reaction to The Helmet of Horror, also part of the Canongate Myths series), Ugrešić’s take on Baba Yaga really worked. Her playfulness was what did it – I can’t imagine a novel like this grabbing me if it came across as taking itself too seriously. Fortunately, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is full of irony and humorous asides.
In addition to the playful tone, I really liked Ugrešić’s thematic approach to the myth of Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is first and foremost about older women – about their vilification and their invisibility, both in the present day and throughout history. The preface immediately sets the tone. Take this passage, for example:
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…This passage put me in mind of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, whose male protagonists say at one point that they’re not used to noticing older women at all, though they suppose they must also exist outside of Herland. But as they don’t want anything from them, their existence fails to register at all.
Throughout the book, Ugrešić makes this invisibility obvious by exploring the “variants in the typology of old women”. Her characters all face the same powerlessness and invisibility even though they have little in common other than the fact that they’re over a certain age. In part two in particular, she begins to differentiate her three protagonists as characters as the story progresses, leaving the reader to consider why we initially saw them as belonging to the same type.
As for the essay section, I enjoyed it for what it says about stories and ideology, even if it’s not clear how much is to be taken at face value. It was also an interesting reflection on the role, ambitions and shortcomings of literary criticism. Despite the very playful tone, I thought it achieved an interesting balance between an appreciation of the storytelling tradition being described and thoughtful criticism of what the fact that we tell these stories (and the way we tell them) reveals about the roles we see as permissible for women over a certain age. I’m not quite sure if this is what Ugrešić was going for, but in any case that interests me less than what the book communicated to me.
Here’s another bit I found particularly interesting:
The chief reason for Baba Yaga’s heresy is her great age. Her dissidence only takes place within the system of life-values that we ourselves have made; in other words, we forced her into heresy. Baba Yaga does not live her life; she undergoes it. She is an old maid or virgin, who serves as a screen for the projection of (castrating) male and (self-punishing) female fantasies. We have stripped away the mere possibility of accomplishment on any level and left her with nothing but a few tricks to scare little children with. We have pushed her to the very edge, in the forest, deep in our subconscious; we have made a symbolical doll and assigned her a symbolical lapot. Baba Yaga is a surrogate-woman, she is here to get old instead of us, to be old instead of us, to be punished instead of us. Hers is the drama of old age, hers is the story of excommunication, forced expulsion, invisibility, brutal marginalisationBaba Yaga Laid an Egg may not be for everyone, but it certainly did expand my understanding of gender roles, age, and the intersection between the two. If that’s something you’re interested in, by all means do pick it up.
They read it too:
She Reads Novels