Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg – Dubravka Ugresic

Part of the Canongate myth series, this book ticked so many boxes for me and yet for some reason I’m struggling to pin it down. Still I’m going to try because I found it both a great read and deeply invigorating – I came out of it fizzing with ideas. The box ticking comes from the myth element, myths, legends, fairytales, folklore – it all fascinates me, and Baba Yaga is a particularly intriguing figure. (Just in case she’s new to you Baba Yaga is a hag who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs by the edge of the forest. Sometimes she helps travellers but more often she entraps them, especially girls. She travels by flying through the air in a mortar steered by a pestle wiping out her traces with a broom. She may or may not eat children).

All of that is well within my comfort zone, but reading an author I know nothing about, whose (indrawn breath) contemporary – well it’s not something I do a lot of, although there are a few more in the Canongate series that I’m adding to my wish list (how amazon must love me). I might even take a chance on another of Ugresic’s books because this one reminded me irresistibly of Angela Carter and I’d like to know if that’s specific to this book because of its explicit basis in myth, or if it’s a shared quality between the two writers. It’s the way that Ugresic plays with reality that reminds me of Carter; things seem real enough and then they become fantastic, strange, worrying, and not quite real at all.

I should also say that this is the second book in a row (after Memento Mori) that’s dealt with the extremes of old age and it occurs to me that the very end of life when neither body or mind works quite as it used to, or quite as you might like it to then things might well be strange, worrying and not quite real.

‘Baba Yaga Laid an Egg’ is split into three parts; the first section chronicles the relationship between the author and her aging mother and includes a trip to her mother’s old home in Bulgaria with a young academic called Aba. Part two takes place in a spa; a triumvirate of old women turn up and wreak a certain amount of havoc on all around them, all in their way are waiting for death:
“Beba sat in the bath wrapped in lacey foam. She could not remember the last time anyone had treated her with greater warmth or tenderness than this hotel bath. This was the kind of painful realisation that drives the more sensitive to put a bullet in their temple, or at least to look around to see where they might attach an adequately strong noose.”
This is the point when strange things really start to happen. Finally there is a ‘Baba Yaga for beginners’ section written by Dr Aba Bagay. It’s an exhausting exploration of Baba Yaga (and incidentally introduced me to the work of Marina Warner who’s now also on my wish list) written as if to the editor of the book. Exhausting but ultimately very worthwhile.

I mean to carry on researching Baba Yaga – here I think she is an avenging fury of sorts - and a neat opposite of the ideal of womanhood, but for all the repulsiveness in her image she’s still a recognisable woman, an angry one at that, and somehow I find that very compelling.


  1. I'm absolutely dying to read this book. I love the Canongate Myth series and the comparison to Carter makes it sound irresistible! I also like your point about the extremes of old age (and I must read Muriel Spark.)

  2. This is high-up in my TBR pile, I'm planning to read most of the Myths series this year, and this one sounds fascinating. I've always liked the idea of Baba Yaga (ever since playing Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition which has a Baba Yaga piece in it in the Youth Orchestra many years ago).

  3. I remember Baba Yaga from story books when I was little! This book sounds great so thank you for pointing it out. I have only read Ali Smith's contribution to the myths so far so really must get a move on.

  4. Nymeth, I think (going out on a limb) that you will love this book, but don't let that put you off!

    Gaskella, I look forward to following your progress, so far the only other myth I've read is the Margaret Atwood, and I loved that too. I'm saving for an amazon orgy and have added a couple to my wish list.

    Tea Lady, the Ali Smith is one of the books on my wish list, what did you think of it?

  5. Oh Girl meets boy is great. If you have read and enjoyed any Ali Smith in the past then you are likely to enjoy to this.

    I chiefly remember it for having a well-written, moving and unembarrassing sex scene which is really quite a feat...

  6. Never read any Ali Smith, but I've heard good things and it seems to me this is the place to start. A sex scene such as you describe really is impressive. My wish list is getting long enough to read like a novel itself!

  7. I remember reading Baba Yaga as a child and was endlessly fascinated by her house. I've only read Pullman's book from the series and an excerpt of Winterson's which were brilliant, but they all look great!