I’ve had Croatia on the mind lately, due to an impending family trip back to the home country and all the extensive planning that’s begun to go into it, so I figured I ought to read at least some Croatian literature, at some point. When I found out that one of my beloved Canongate Myths novels was written by a Croatian author and translated into English, I immediately ordered it from the library, and received it days later. It turns out books translated from Croatian are not in particularly high demand at Seattle Public Library.
And thus, this past week, I found myself tearing through Dubravka Ugresic’ Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, Celia Hawkesworth, and Mark Thompson), which made such an impression on me that I bought my own copy before I even had time to return the library’s.
Like the other novels in the Myths series, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a modern retelling of a popular myth, this time the Russian/slavic character of Baba Yaga. Unlike the other myths in the series, however, Baba Yaga isn’t well known outside of her immediate cultures, despite sanitized representations of her (and other mythical witches like her) sneaking into more popular media than anybody realizes:
Perhaps because of this unfamiliarity most people have with the myth, even among those living in the cultures Baba Yaga hails from, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg takes a much more academic approach to tale-retelling than any of the other books from the series I’ve read. And when I say “academic,” I mean that literally.
The book divides itself into three sections. First, a personal mediation on the intersections of femininity, aging, sexuality, and familial ties from the author as she considers her senile, aging mother. Second, a fictional, heavily allegorical tale of three elderly women on a kind of final quest at the end of their lives to just have a little fun again. Finally, a multi-page, thickly phrased and intensely meta study of the myth of Baba Yaga as it relates to the previous two sections, complete with footnotes and annotations. The first two stories are common in this series; comparing personal journeys to mythic ones is a popular way to contextualize these epic stories, and relatability is (arguably) what makes myths stick around in the first place. That last bit, though, is what really set Baba Yaga Laid an Egg apart for me.
I tend to be very wary of books that take themselves too seriously–for example, when Super Sad True Love Story offered a critique of its own narrative in its epilogue, it pissed me off to the point where I literally hurled the book across the room–and thus I’m more than a little surprised that I actually liked this approach to it. But the difference, I think, is in the goal of the meta-criticism. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg doesn’t offer this academic diatribe to convince you of its own profundity. Instead, it offers a mountain of further evidence toward its own thematic points, dumping them so furiously that you feel a little suffocated by the sheer volume. The third section isn’t self-critique. It’s a scornful elucidation of the ignorance of the reader who needs to make use of it.
This is a book angry about having to explain itself; angry that such an important mythic character–Baba Yaga, the original witch, the very embodiment of female power, a champion of the elderly, interesting and terrifying and powerful and seductive in her own right–is relegated to the fringes of popular culture, requiring cross-referenced evidence of her relevance to be taken seriously, while dime-a-dozen heroes like Heracles and Theseus take center stage without need to justify themselves. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is a masterwork in slowly ascending rage, woven in behind small, comical stories, stories about the kinds of lives that no one pays attention to because they belong to people who are not young and beautiful and male.
And when the rage finally hits boiling point, there is not a hint of apology.
“At first they’re invisible. And then all at once you begin to spot them. They shuffle around the world like armies of elderly angels.”