Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

by Dubravka Ugrešić

Cover image

Translator: Ellen Elias-Bursać
Translator: Celia Hawkesworth
Translator: Mark Thompson
Publisher: Canongate
Copyright: 2007, 2009
Printing: 2009
ISBN: 0-8021-4520-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 327

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Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a very strange book, at least compared to what I normally read and review. It has three separate and very distinct parts written in very different styles (so much so that they're translated by three different people, and that choice feels natural). The first two are fiction; the last is non-fiction. The first part is straight mimetic fiction. The second is borderline fantasy, a sort of magic realism. And the third part is a scholarly discussion of Baba Yaga in myth and legend in Slavic countries, mixed with a critical analysis of the first two parts from the perspective of how they incorporate symbols and themes of the Baba Yaga myth. This is a book that contains its own critical response.

The first part, "Go There — I Know Not Where — and Bring Me Back a Thing I Lack," is a close look at the relationship between a daughter and her mother, told from the daughter's perspective in a series of vignettes and moments of observation. It doesn't exactly have a plot, although there is a longer bit of narrative around a woman her mother met and a trip to Bulgaria.

This part is beautifully, breathtakingly well-written, full of small observations and emotional discoveries that paint a vivid picture of both the narrator and her mother. The balance of frustration, discomfort, and helpless amusement in the way her mother often gets the wrong word for something was particularly lovely. I was less fond of the section where the narrator goes to Bulgaria with Aba, but mostly just because I was sympathizing with the narrator's negative reactions. It's one of those bits of writing where the author manages to talk about parts of life that don't follow a plot arc: problems that don't really resolve, history that simply is what it is, and the day-to-day process of staying close with relatives and coping with their well-established quirks.

The second part, "Ask Me No Questions and I'll Tell You No Lies," is, as mentioned, a significant shift in tone. It's set in a health spa in the Czech Republic. The primary characters are three old women (one extremely old and in a wheelchair and prone to wonderfully blunt outbursts), the doctor who runs the spa and is obsessed with life extension, an American vitamin and supplement magnate, and a masseur at the spa with a serious (and completely unrealistic) priapism problem.

This is the section where the fantastic starts to enter the story, but always somewhat sneakily and without narrative fireworks. Two of the women (possibly all three) have unusual powers, which are almost indistinguishable from strange and usually amusing personal quirks and are mentioned without narrative fanfare. There is more of a plot than the first part, but it's not the sort of story that collects a bunch of plot threads and ties them up into a resolution, which is sometimes frustrating. Family troubles, death, romance, friendship, and personal baggage all mix, swirl, and mingle. Parts of it are delightful; parts of it are rather confusing. The story seems determined to not be taken too seriously, reinforcing that constantly with rhyming couplets about the relentless forward motion of the story at the end of each section. I loved moments of this part of the book, but I came away wishing it had taken itself a bit more seriously and provided a bit more internal analysis and explanation to the reader.

The third part is the hardest for me to talk about, since I don't read much literary criticism and symbolic analysis. It's a detailed look at the Baba Yaga myth, organized largely by symbols within the myth, and it's full of the sort of symbolic analysis that I'm not personally interested in: lots of connections to sex, fertility, and sexual duality. (I'm not saying this analysis is wrong, just that I don't find it that interesting to read about.) Most of this part is a general and generic overview of Baba Yaga, with lots of mentions of regional and cultural variations. The most interesting material (to me, at least) is the application of that overview to the two fictional parts, but unfortunately that's a minority of the material. This is dense going if you don't read a lot of mythological analysis or literary criticism, and it didn't add as much to the previous parts as I was hoping.

I can appreciate what Ugrešić is doing in echoing the form of independent analysis and putting speculation about the possible interpretations of her own work into the pen of a fictional scholar. The resulting sense of uncertainty and multiple valid interpretations is more accurate, in a deep sense, than an analysis that pointed to specific interpretations. But the result is that no particular interpretation goes deep enough to make a coherent whole. I think this effect was probably intentional, but I found it unsatisfying. (Which may, itself, be part of the point.)

One thing that does come across from the final part is a picture of Baba Yaga as a figure who lives on the margins and doesn't fall into a simple picture of good and bad in large part because she refuses to participate in the expected cycle and structure of the world and specifically in the "proper" female roles in that structure. That makes her a figure of threat and chaos in tales, but it can also make her a figure of female empowerment, and specifically one for old women. I can see why this book won the Tiptree: it's not obvious in the way in which it raises gender issues, but it raises them very effectively, and does so while looking at old women on their own terms. This is not a frequent subject of books.

I'm not sure I could quite recommend this work as a whole; it's just so strange that I'm still not sure what I think of it. But there are sections that are beautiful, particularly in the first part which (due to the nature of the book) reads well independently. I like somewhat more resolution and plot structure in my books, but it's hard not to admire the skill and the embedded moments of brilliant observation. Certainly look for it if you like mythological analysis and symbolism and would enjoy picking apart the ambiguous symbols embedded in the fiction with the help of the concluding analysis.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-01-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21