Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg is the latest, most inventive and most substantial volume in Canongate’s series of revisioned myths. The first was Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, a harsh retelling in Penelope’s voice of the concluding scenes of the Odyssey. With her own special bite, Atwood singles out for dramatic treatment the girls who worked in the palace and fraternised with Penelope’s suitors; she reminds us how pitilessly Odysseus orders them to be hanged, every one. The resonances with contemporary matters, which this series of books aims to stir, are powerful in this new handmaid’s tale. Karen Armstrong opened the series with an introduction that stressed myth’s archaic origins and links to religion and ritual, to national or tribal identity. This is the ontological version of myth, which assumes that the stories connect to a metaphysical belief system that maps onto a culture’s history and ethics.
But, to borrow Christopher Warnes’s contrast between ontology and irreverence in his Magical Realism and the Postcolonial Novel,the approach of contemporary retellers of myths, including Ugrešić, makes clear that the readers they have in mind aren’t concerned with sacred matters and are impatient with spiritual meaning. These writers have adopted a looser, secular conception of myth, which flattens hierarchies between faith and superstition, and doesn’t discriminate, as a Victorian anthropologist would have done, between high and low culture, between stories about gods, which are rooted in belief and enacted through ritual, and tales of goblins and fairies and witches, told to raise shivers of pleasurable fear on a dark winter night. By uncoupling itself from belief, the vision of myth/fairy tale can be angled more sharply towards other tasks.
Voltaire showed the way: from his vantage point, Zeus turning into a bull, Nebuchadnezzar into a wild animal, and the Beast bridegrooms of fairy tale are much of a muchness. But even as he mocked the motifs and premises of myth, religion and enchantment, he found he could do what he needed to do by employing the conventions of fabulism. Ugrešić’s work belongs in this tradition, in which storytelling is a form of fantasy, play, a non-representational patterning of experience, and a defining activity of social criticism. Secular, acerbic, comic, springing from scepticism, her fiction reflects a return to earlier forms: allegory, parable, fable, aphorism, midrashim or proverbial wisdom literature.
Fairy tales have woven in and out of this tradition and occupy a distinctive strain in Russian culture, which has its own stories and figures – Baba Yaga herself, the Firebird, Koshchey the Deathless (Roman Jakobson estimated that a third of Russian fairy tales were unknown outside the country). Pushkin, Leskov, Platonov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinksy, Kandinsky and Chagall drew inspiration from the oral literature polite society had hitherto left in the fields or the kitchen. They were influenced not only by the stories themselves, but also by the style, the direct-speaking manner, the comic-melodramatic voice, the irony and savvy. The chief source they used was an anthology published between 1855 and 1864, Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandr Nikolayevich Afanasyev. Although he is usually credited with collecting the stories himself, Afanasyev in fact combed earlier collectors’ records, and, like the Brothers Grimm before him and Italo Calvino later, patched and pieced and retold and revoiced the material.
During the Soviet era, as Ugrešić has said, the use of traditional material gave writers freedom because it appeared to conform to the populist and nationalist policies of the state. (Lenin had claimed that folktales could be used as the basis for ‘beautiful studies about the hopes and longings of our people’.) An authentic proletarian background, supposed naivety and a child audience could also provide a cloak for subversive thoughts and political criticism; fabulist metaphors were hard to censor. Platonov’s fables, such as the story ‘Among Animals and Plants’ and the novella Soul, use the apparent innocence of the folktale form to indict the conditions of existence in Soviet Russia (though he didn’t escape censure). The same stratagems were used by Miroslav Holub in Czechoslovakia and Danilo Kis in Yugoslavia.
Ugrešić has been circling this territory for a while. In her new book, the tradition of upside-down, modernist myth-making or ironical fable has freed her tongue. Skittish at times, affectionately comic, and lavish with improbable and ingenious fairy-tale plotting, her handling of the genre is deft and light. In Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Ugrešić is in much higher spirits than in her recent collection of essays, Nobody’s Home (2007), or her withering attack on the book trade, Thank You for Not Reading (2003), or her ironic and prophetic fictions, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1998) and The Ministry of Pain (2005).
Baba Yaga is the true Witch of the North, the supreme scare figure of the Russian nursery, a monstrous old hag who haunts children and eats them. She doesn’t exactly appear in character here, but she hovers off stage, and directs the action. Old women are Ugrešić’s heroines and old womanhood her theme. This new book is a hybrid work, a comic fable in three parts, combining autobiography, travel, memoir, fable, satire and essay. It begins with an elegy about her own mother’s decline into dementia; hoping to reawaken her mother’s memories, Ugrešić makes a pilgrimage to Sofia, her mother’s hometown, seeing herself as a bedel (the double who rich men used to pay to go to Mecca or fight in the army in their stead). But when she returns with photographs and anecdotes, her mother doesn’t recognise present-day Sofia. This is Ugrešić’s territory: the impossibility of belonging, the ineluctability of loss and the desirability, even so, of remaining apart.
By contrast, in the second section, ‘Ask Me No Questions and I’ll Tell You No Lies’, Ugrešić spins a mischievous tale about a triad of crones. Kukla, Pupa and Beba are visiting a beauty spa, the famous Wellness Centre. It’s a luxury resort, all mud baths and speciality massages, a product of the new, global-market free-enterprise Czech Republic, and Ugrešić brings her talents as a reporter to the details of salves and bath foam, slogans and promises. Its founder, Dr Topolanek, observes that his contemporaries do not have his survival skills: ‘The freedom for which they had fought turned out to be fatal. It destroyed them the way oxygen destroys buried frescoes when they are suddenly brought into the light.’ Yet each of the three women finds her own surprise happy ending at the Wellness Centre: a gentle, longed-for passing on; a foundling child and a freak casino win; a home.
The egg of the title comes from a riddling fairy tale about a quest for love. As Kukla summarises it,
Ivan falls in love with a girl, but to make her fall in love with him, he has to find out where her love is hidden. And he sets off over seven mountains and seven valleys, and reaches the ocean. There he finds an oak tree, in the oak there is a box, in the box a rabbit, in the rabbit a duck and in the duck an egg. It is in that egg that the girl’s love is hidden. The girl has to eat the egg. And when she eats it, the flame of love for Ivan flares in her heart.
Ugrešić’s Ivan is Mevlo, a young masseur at the beauty farm, he is a Bosnian orphan with a heart of gold, who has suffered from a permanent erection ever since a bomb exploded beside him in Sarajevo. He will find the egg, and there will be a beautiful future for him too – love, fortune, family – and restoration from Beast-like priapism to the normal human droop he has longed for.
A long mock appendix tails the book: ‘If You Know Too Much, You Grow Old Too Soon’, by Dr Aba Bagay, sets out a compendium of stories about witchcraft, together with etymologies and interpretations based on gender studies. We learn more about Baba Yaga: she lives deep in the forest in a hut that runs about on chicken legs and turns away from visitors so that they can’t find the door; the hut is fortified by a palisade surmounted by skulls ‘with eyes intact’. She has one skeleton or metal leg, half-blind bloodshot eyes, and dugs so long she slings them over the rafters when she goes to bed. She travels through the air in a pestle and mortar, using a broom to sweep away her tracks. But her bark is worse than her bite, and several stories, including Ugrešić’s, have her using her magic powers on behalf of strays or her protégés.
Ugrešić is a parodist with many voices, and gives her translators a tricky task: in Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, the ends of chapters echo the traditional storyteller’s rhyming envois (‘What about us? We keep going. While life finds humps and bumps to stumble on, the tale keeps hurrying and scurrying along’). In an earlier, technically virtuoso novel, Fording the Stream of Consciousness (1991), each character had a particular prose style: the detective sounds like Chandler, the heroine muses in a Woolfian fugue and so on (the veteran translator Michael Henry Heim was in action here). This time, Canongate has reproduced her polyphony of registers by commissioning three translators to work on the different parts of the book and give the memoir, fiction and essay a different feel.
Ugrešić studied in Moscow in the 1970s, and when she writes about the folklore of witches, and the horror and terror old women inspire, she is drawing on her background in Russian linguistics and avant-garde literature. When a nationalist government came to power in Croatia in 1991, Ugrešić was one of the ‘Five Witches’ attacked in the press for their ‘unpatriotic’ opposition to the regime. She was forced to leave her job at the University of Zagreb after crucifixes appeared on the walls and national flags on the desks of her colleagues; Serbo-Croat was abolished (the new national language was to be purged of all non-Croatian elements). Even her mother’s birth in Bulgaria was used against her. Ugrešić said (in a conversation with Lisa Appignanesi in the London Review Bookshop) that she hadn’t consciously connected her own denunciation as a witch with her choice of heroines. Kukla, the oldest of the three crones, is definitely witchy: she is always accompanied by a cool breeze, has a way of losing her husbands to premature graves, and when she first enters the story, the clerk at the hotel has a stroke when she appears in the lobby.
I met Dubravka Ugrešić before all this, in the late 1980s at a conference in San Francisco which gathered together writers from countries on both sides of the Cold War. Dubravka gave a wry speech about coming from a small country. I didn’t have a sense then that she felt the wind blowing from the future. But only a few years later, in her now much smaller country, she became the victim of a witch-hunt, and in 1993 entered the state of ‘willed homelessness’ (in Edward Said’s phrase) that is characteristic of the émigré, moving from one visiting fellowship or residency to another until she settled a few years ago in Amsterdam. She now has a Dutch passport and a following, but doesn’t speak the language, and still writes in what is now designated as ‘Croatian’ in the Canongate translation.
Exiles read contrapuntally, Said wrote in an essay called ‘Reflections on Exile’. ‘Home and culture aren’t something one belongs to but also things one possesses,’ he added in an essay on Erich Auerbach, ‘and require the drawing of boundaries to define and own them.’ Ugrešić has written contrapuntally from the start, and her parodist’s irony was sharpened – roughened, too – by her state of homelessness (remember the title Nobody’s Home). History unmade Yugoslavia, the country she was born into, and though she can now go back, what was home has vanished. Like the hero of another Russian fairy tale, she may well say: ‘I will go I know not where; I will bring back I know not what.’
In an article on Ugrešić and one of her sister witches, Slavenka Drakulic, Sanja Bahun (also Yugoslav-born) discusses the dilemma of Yugo-stalgia for writers in their position. She sees Ugrešić’s montage technique as an act of retrieval. ‘Melancholia is used strategically here,’ she writes, ‘and it is attached, specifically and stubbornly, to the image of the former Yugoslavia.’ Ugrešić herself admits that ‘I often think that my countrymen are not people at all but cuttlefish in human form: you have only to touch them, and they emit a black cloud.’ The former Yugoslavia has indeed given Ugrešić a specific case which can be used to examine contrapuntally the world she has roamed for the last 20 years, with its migrant workers, refugees, tribalism, faith politics, identity politics, consumer branding, sentimentality, and, in Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, the beauty industry and the worship of youth, with its attendant phenomena, cosmetic surgery, sex enhancement, nutritional supplements.
The phrase ‘Baba Yaga Laid an Egg’ is borrowed from a reworking of folklore by the modernist Aleksei Mikhailovich Remizov; it’s funny in the original, a tongue-twisting nonsense rhyme, and Ugrešić has quoted it before, in the short story ‘Who Am I?’, which appears in Lend Me Your Character (2004). But the phrase also makes Baba Yaga seem a sport of nature, fit for a cabinet of curiosities or a sideshow in Ripley’s ‘Believe it or not!’ Seventeenth-century almanacs used to report miracles of this kind, with woodcuts showing a woman sitting on her nest to hatch her brood; another prodigy, the subject of a famous print by Hogarth, was Mary Tofts, who in 1726 gave birth to a litter of rabbits and became so famous that Dr Johnson went to inspect. But Baba Yaga laying an egg alludes to impossibility in another way: she’s too old to have offspring of any sort, but like a basilisk, which lays eggs despite being male, she breaks the laws of nature. Baba Yaga isn’t quite a woman, and certainly not feminine; there’s something of Tiresias about her, double-sexed and knowing.
Old women do more complicated symbolic work in literature and myth than males in their third age. Much disgust and joyless moralising has been provoked by their continuing sexual appetite after the end of fertility. Bawds and procuresses in paintings of brothels are usually shown as chapfallen, toothless crones extending a wrinkled palm to a punter while pressing towards him a dewy young thing. Dutch paintings of the Golden Age specialise in such scenes; yet madams at the time were usually middling-young women who had left the game themselves as soon as they could. Lotte van de Pol discovered this surprising piece of demographic history while examining court records for her 1996 study of prostitution in Amsterdam (the city’s court records are the fullest in the world on this subject, a consequence of the Dutch Republic’s combined sense of faith, decorum and business). But in satires on lewdness and folly, artists and poets continued to portray brothel-keepers as old hags, following the tradition established by classical myths. Raddled Strife or Eris, the Fates, the Harpies: all of these set the tone for diatribes such as the brutal poem long attributed to Ovid, ‘De Vetula’ (‘On the Crone’), with its grotesque numbering of parts and their sorry condition. The tradition hasn’t faded away: J.M. Coetzee’s male protagonists (no spring chickens themselves) frequently note the fallen state of female flesh with displeasure and a distinct sense of superior difference.
By contrast, the earliest version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’, written by Mme de Villeneuve in 1740, describes how the hero was turned into a beast by his godmother: she fancied him and, when he turned her down, cursed him. She’s not portrayed as particularly old, however, just an older woman. For Charles Perrault and the contemporary women writers, like Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, who took up the genre, fairies – les fées – behaved and looked like grand court ladies; the crone played the part of the storyteller, or the beggar woman sent to test the heroine’s sweet nature, or the granny who gets eaten by the wolf. In all of these roles – the narrator, the needy old woman and the grandmother – the women are wise rather than hideous, sympathetic rather than repulsive, and they also mirror the authors’ part in the story, by voicing their designs on the listener and the reader.
The old crone, however, does appear as an ogress in her own right, or an ‘ogree’ (this was the common form of the word when it was first introduced into English in the 18th century via French and Italian fairy tales), who ‘with a raw head and bloody bones … runs away with naughty Boys and Girls’ and gobbles them up. Such figures can raise a laugh, as pantomime dames, for example; but they also know how to mock and to laugh at others. And however ancient they are, they’re seldom decrepit; however feeble they seem, hunched over a stick with their nose meeting their chin, they still exercise uncanny power as the fairy godmother or the evil queen. But no storybook crone, not even Sir Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpmann as the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, or Ian McKellen camping it up as Widow Twankey, can approach the monstrosity of Baba Yaga.
At the close of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, the mysterious Dr Bagay herself sprouts feathers and finds her mouth stretching into a beak, and takes off on another kind of magical flight. Ugrešić’s approach to myths opposes the archaic view that there is a time-hallowed truth waiting to be unveiled, instead treating the stories as volatile and dynamic. In some odd way she is mirroring the mission she gives her comic villain, Dr Topolanek of the Wellness Centre, attempting to dispel the ill effects, misery, prejudices and disgust that bedevil female ageing.