Saturday, January 3, 2015

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson

Source: Goodreads
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg
Dubravka Ugresic
Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson (from Croatian)
Originally 2007, I read 2009
327 pages, folklore, post-modern

This post-modern take on the folklore character of Baba Yaga contains three sections that may or may not be connected to each other:

A tale of an author's* relationship with her cleanliness-obsessed, dementia afflicted mother. At her mother's urging, the author undertakes a trip to their hometown with a recent-Ph.D. in folklore.

The author's* novella about three elderly female friends who travel abroad to a health spa.

A folklore scholar's description of the Baba Yaga stories and remarks about how the first two sections (presented as a book manuscript from an editor) relate to those folktales.

*"The author" here refers to the character in the novel. I will specify Ugresic by name to avoid confusion. 

Read a sample or buy from Amazon:
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

Post-modernism and confusion

This book proved rather difficult for me to understand, probably because I did not enjoy its post-modern structure. After the first section's change from a poignant account of the author's mother's illness to a travel narrative from hell,  I was a bit confused and disappointed (which was probably Ugresic's intention). But that was nothing compared to the second section.

The tale of the three elderly women in the health spa meanders through a story filled with references to folklore, deus-ex-machina, and random deaths and accidents. The basic plot is that three old women, who are friends for barely-explained reasons, go on a trip to a health spa in a foreign country, where the eldest dies suddenly. The other two then have to figure out how to deal with this unexpected development. However, there is no real satisfactory answer to this, and no real struggle on the part of the women; after they make half-hearted plans to smuggle the body back to their own country, the dead woman's grandson appears to sort everything out. Besides these main characters, there are a cast of other characters whose story makes it way into the narrative, but it is unclear why we should care about them or how they are related to the rest of the tale.

I didn't understand any of this until I began the third section of the book, in which a folklorist (probably Aba, the recent Ph.D. from the first story) explains the way the first two sections are connected to the Baba Yaga story. To do so, in classic folklorist fashion, she creates an encyclopedia of sorts, breaking down the elements of the folklore and comparing it with stories from other parts of the world that are not necessarily related to each other.

I appreciated this last section, because Aba was able to elucidate the connections between the previous two stories and the folklore. It also seemed to be a rather clever way to include some teaching material with the text itself. Forty pages later, I was tired of it; there's only so much time I can spend reading an encyclopedia. At the end, it seemed to me that Ugresic felt that she had to explain the meaning behind her first two stories, or else no one would be able to understand them.


Ageism, the prejudice against old people, is something that I have never been able to understand. Everyone is young at some time and, inshallah, most people will be old at another time. So it doesn't make sense to treat the elderly badly, because you will likely be in that position yourself eventually.

My favorite part of this novel, and the reason I picked it up in the first place, is the intimate portrait of aging women. Far too few works of fiction deal with the experience of old age.

As in real life, each of the elderly characters is dealing with some physical or psychological problem. The author's mother is suffering from dementia. One of the women from the second story is so old that she can no longer move. Another is lonely and sexually repressed. The third feels like a failure and is contemplating suicide.

Ugresic's brilliance is in depicting a large cast of elderly characters who are not just old, but are also people in all their complexity. Books like this can help to combat ageism and the problem of ignoring the elderly.

Where I found it: Half Price Books, Hamilton, OH, USA

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