- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 17, 2010

By Dubravka Ugresic
Canongate, $23
327 pages

”Baba Yaga Laid an Egg” is a witty, provocative novel about old women, their idiosyncrasies, foibles and secret powers. It’s a mix of fiction, fantasy, folklore and memoir, divided into three parts. The first two are a diptych of apparently unrelated stories.

In the third part, Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic tells her readers everything they wanted to know about the role of Baba Yaga in Slavic mythology, Baba Yaga’s relationship to witches in other cultures, her powers, and the symbolism of her accouterments, such as the egg, the mortar, the pestle, the broom and so forth. All of it is told with intelligence, enthusiasm and sly digs at current cultural customs. (The three parts have been translated from the Croatian by three different translators, resulting in slightly different English literary styles.)

Baba Yaga is the witch of Slavic fairy tales, an old crone who lives in a hut that turns on chicken legs. The hut is surrounded by a fence of impaled skulls. Baba Yaga is ugly and half blind, with a long, beaked nose and huge, pendulous breasts. She kidnaps and eats children, but also helps maidens and princes who are kind to her.

In general, the old women of “Baba Yaga” “are invisible. … They roll by you like heaps of dried apples. They mumble something into their chins, conversing with invisible collocutors 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.”

In the first part of “Baba Yaga,” the old woman is the mother of a successful writer. The mother lives in Zagreb, although the daughter has emigrated. Her “mind still worked, her feet still moved, she could walk, though only with the help of a walker, but walk she did, and she was a human being who knew for a certainty that beans are best in salad, and that old age is a terrible calamity. … Her firmly held opinions on small matters … her pugnacity … her lack of tact … were signals of an underlying anguish that had been smouldering in her for years, an ever-present sense that no one noticed her, that she was invisible.”

The woman asks her daughter to go to Bulgaria to revisit the scenes of the mother’s childhood. As the daughter wanders through the streets and town beach of her mother’s childhood, she feels uneasily like her mother’s “bedel,” a paid surrogate; she is overcome by a feeling of despair that “filled [her] like beer foam in a mug.”

Intrinsic to the story are the eternal conflicts and tensions between mothers and daughters, the desire of the former to hold on, of the latter to be free. Guilt, love, annoyance and tenderness are all part of the mix.

In the first story, the reader is also introduced to Pupa, one of three old women around whom the second part of the diptych is centered. She is the gynecologist/midwife who was present at the writer’s birth. She has become “an old lady with both feet tucked into a large fur boot. It would have been hard to describe [her] as a human being; she was the remains of a human being, a piece of humanoid crackling. … The old lady had a tiny face that consisted of a skull and aged skin stretched over it like a nylon stocking. She had thick, closely cropped grey hair and a hooked nose. Her lively grey eyes sparkled brightly.”

Pupa and two friends had arrived from Zagreb at the Grand Hotel in a Czech spa for a vacation. Pupa’s companions were Kukla, an exceptionally tall, bony woman with large feet, who had “learned to walk cautiously through the world, as though on eggshells, quiet and silent as a shadow,” and Beba, “a short breathless blonde, her hair ruined by excessive use of peroxide, with big gold rings in her ears and large breasts whose weight dragged her forward.”

In the course of their stay, the old ladies meet an American named Mr. Shaker, “the king of an industry of magical powders and potions, bearing the label food-supplement. … Like every successful tradesman, what Mr. Shakes actually sold was ideological hot air, in this case the hot air of metamorphosis. His products suggested to frogs that they would turn into princesses.” Mr. Shaker has a pretty daughter, who becomes the love object of the spa masseur, with whom Beba strikes up a friendship.

Beba makes an accidental fortune at the roulette table when she tries to break a 500 euro note; Pupa dies on a lounger in the swimming pool; Pupa’s grandson, David, appears, a “nepos ex machina,” with a precocious little Chinese girl, who was adopted by Beba’s homosexual son, Filip. Filip has died of AIDS, and bequeathed his little daughter to her grandmother, Beba.

The zany tale is filled with offbeat characters and is supplemented throughout with couplets indicating a transition in the action, such as “While life stumbles through thickets and briars, the tale is one of constant high-fliers.”

The third part of “Baba Yaga,” prefaced by a letter from a Dr. Aba Bagay, is a discussion of the mythology, sociology, history, sexuality and psychology of Baba Yaga and her witch counterparts in cultural folklore throughout the world with analogies to the fates suffered throughout history by old women. Many of the explanations hark back to the characters and situations in the two stories.

Baba Yaga” is a mordant tour de force that keeps the reader chuckling, moved throughout by the poignancy of the characters. “As we grow older, we weep less and less. It takes energy to weep. In old age neither the lungs, nor the heart, nor the tear ducts, nor the muscles have the strength for great misery. Age is a kind of natural sedative, perhaps because age itself is a misfortune.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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