"If there was something I could not abide, it was folklore and the people who studied folklore."
So declares the narrator of the first section of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugresic's tough and witty novel on the theme of the famous witch. This narrator has traveled from Zagreb to Varna, her ageing mother's home town, and is supposed to bring home pictures. She's depressed by the city, which she knew as a teenager before the war but can no longer recognize, and by an annoying friend of her mother's who won't leave her alone--a young woman who's just received her PhD in folklore. Fairytales, the narrator believes, miss the point: domestic folklorists are "generally closet nationalists," while foreign ones exploit war zones, enthusiastically studying the "new" folklore of hatred. The victims of that hatred are "of little interest to anyone."
The narrator of this first part of the three-part novel is prickly, impatient, caustic--and right. There is something syrupy about the study of folklore. The brilliance of the novel lies in the way it rescues Baba Yaga from the syrup. Ugresic explores Baba Yaga's intractability, foulness and grandeur, uncovers her divine origins, refigures her as a radical "dissident," and above all makes her speak for those "of little interest to anyone"--old women.
Although there is overlap between them, each of the three sections of the book has its own flavor and set of preoccupations (and, in a genius move, its own translator). Part One stars our no-nonsense narrator and her wonderful, exasperating mother, who suffers from mild dementia. Part Two has a lighter tone, and is set at a hotel where three old women, including the mother from Part One, have gone for a holiday. This section reads most like a fairytale, featuring a casino windfall, a melancholy masseur with a perpetual erection, a grandchild who pops up as suddenly as Thumbelina, and a death by golf ball. Despite its exuberance, this section resists becoming sentimental or cute; it's here, where female old age is seen through the eyes of elderly women, that the humor is at its most lacerating. Here's Beba, the mother from Part One, on the subject:
"On the other hand, what is left for women when they stumble into old age? One rarely sees those few fortunate ones with übermensch genes, such as that crone of Hitler's, Leni Riefenstahl, who lived to be a hundred and one, and showed everyone the meaning of 'the triumph of the will'!... [M]ost are left with the 'old-lady in good-health look.' These are desexualised old hags with short, masculine haircuts, dressed in light-coloured windcheaters and pants, not differentiated in any way from their male contemporaries, and noticed only when they are in a group."
Part Three, written by the folklorist from Part One, is a delicious catalog of Baba Yaga lore, which many people on Amazon and Goodreads seem to find irritating and/or dull. I SO DISAGREE. Ok, it's a bit arch at times (those references to "your author," who is the author of the first two parts of the book, who may be Ugresic or another character, nudge-wink-pomo-shenanigans), but it's also packed with mystery, dazzling and terrifying images, brutal history, enticing snippets of stories, and a vibrant feminist politics. For me, it's an essential part of the novel. Like the three old women, Beba, Pupa and Kukla, the three sections of this book need each other.
Baba Yagas of the World, Unite!