Canongate £14.99 (327pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 0870 079 8897
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, By Dubravka Ugresic
In praise of the mythical older woman
Friday 03 July 2009
Are these tough old birds human? Note their scrawny legs; hear the baleful racket that comes from their beaky mouths. Who needs them? Once in the forest (so our beaky grannies taught us) there dwelt a crazy crone called Baba Yaga: she'd devour you as soon as look at you. Her hut was built of bones; believe it or not, the hut had hen's legs and turned round on the spot. In the eastern territories of Europe we all know about her: more than we want to know. Witch, midwife, demon, healer, destroyer, death's-head, she may be your elderly neighbour.
Like the birds, Baba Yaga is legion. There is no escaping her and – if I live – I myself am destined to become a version of her. All the characters in Baba Yaga Laid an Egg are versions of this heterogeneous, devious crone. Dubravka Ugrešic's contribution to the Canongate Myths series takes the form of a triptych. In the first section, an author describes her mother's decline; their ambivalent relationship is complicated by the insinuating appearance of Aba, a folklorist. In part two, three ancient women, Pupa, Beba and Kukla, visit a Czech health resort. The equivocal Aba surfaces in the last section as the anagrammatic exegete, Aba Bagay. If you feel confused by the proliferating stories, Dr Bagay comes with a key.
Baya Yaga Laid an Egg ( translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson) is a mirthlessly witty divertimento on female old age. Ugrešic's meta-narrative sings with intelligence; its cryptic weirdness challenges the reader. Set in the splintered aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, its persons inhabit a borderline between tragedy and farce.
Old women are treated as grotesques – but by whom? Viewpoint is everything. From the perspective of the boy-receptionist, the wheelchaired hotel guest constitutes "a piece of humanoid crackling". The plot's phantasmagoria represents the ugly eye of the beholder; the tendency of society to demonise old women. Baba Yaga, a patriarchal creation, turns out to have a feminist sword under her pillow.
Pupa, the Methusalem of this trinity of old lasses, who fulfils her last wish (to die and be delivered from the hell of history), was once a gynaecologist. A persecuted Jew and Partisan during the war, imprisoned under the Cominform, she ended in exile, separated from her child. This is the narrative of affliction hunkering behind the carnivalesque narrative. As Dr Bagay explains, myths are memes, "units of cultural transmission" which "take themselves to pieces... adapt and readapt".
These stories are a whirligig of outrageous invention. I shall remember most poignantly the old, old story of a difficult mother-daughter relationship. As the mother's world shrinks, a valedictory tenderness is squeezed from the substance of the myth. The daughter, dissolving into sobs, spits out "a fragile tiny body in the palm of my hand, all wet from tears and saliva... as if it were my own small baby".
Stevie Davies's latest novel is 'The Eyrie' (Phoenix)
Swedish stars ask fans for £195 pledges on crowd-funding website
voicesJust when you thought you could find a man, get married, and have a baby by the age of 35... it turns out you’re too late, says Grace Dent
sportNapoli 2 Arsenal 0: Gunners must now face either Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona in knock-out stages
musicAs Mariah Carey and Noddy Holder rake in the royalties from their classics, why there hasn't been a decent festive hit for 20 years?
theatreAuthor Daniel Rosenthal recalls the mishaps that almost brought the curtain down on the likes of John Gielgud and Diana Rigg
filmFilm producers sue Warner Bros for $75m over Hobbit films
lifeAs the Royal Mail plans to phase out deliveries on two wheels, it's no wonder posties are in a spin
musicThe 21-year-old beat Ella Eyre and Chlöe Howl to win the honour
lifeFull of the joys and want to help your fellow man? December isn't the time to do it
techLuke Blackall reports on precision engineered prams and babygros that monitor your child 24-7
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nelson Mandela memorial: ‘Bogus’ interpreter made mockery of Barack Obama’s tribute
- 2 It’s shameful that our universities have accepted gender segregation under pressure from the most oppressive religious fanatics
- 3 Kenyan politician Mike Sonko left red-faced after photoshopping himself next to Nelson Mandela
- 4 Exeter to Edinburgh and back in a day: How one fresher's lost bet left him facing a 900-mile round trip
- 5 Selfie at funeral: Cameron squeezes in on Obama snap at Mandela memorial
- < Previous
- Next >