Zany Tale of Slavic Witch and Aging

Article excerpt

Byline: Corinna Lothar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

'Baba Yaga Laid an Egg" is a witty, provocative novel about old women, their idiosyncrasies, foibles and secret powers. It's a mix of fiction, fantasy, folklore and memoir, divided into three parts. The first two are a diptych of apparently unrelated stories.

In the third part, Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic tells her readers everything they wanted to know about the role of Baba Yaga in Slavic mythology, Baba Yaga's relationship to witches in other cultures, her powers, and the symbolism of her accouterments, such as the egg, the mortar, the pestle, the broom and so forth. All of it is told with intelligence, enthusiasm and sly digs at current cultural customs. (The three parts have been translated from the Croatian by three different translators, resulting in slightly different English literary styles.)

Baba Yaga is the witch of Slavic fairy tales, an old crone who lives in a hut that turns on chicken legs. The hut is surrounded by a fence of impaled skulls. Baba Yaga is ugly and half blind, with a long, beaked nose and huge, pendulous breasts. She kidnaps and eats children, but also helps maidens and princes who are kind to her.

In general, the old women of Baba Yaga "are invisible. .. They roll by you like heaps of dried apples They mumble something into their chins, conversing with invisible collocutors the way American Indians speak with the spirits. They ride buses, trams and the subway like abandoned luggage; they sleep with their heads drooping onto their chests; or they gawk around, wondering which stop to get off at, or whether they should get off at all."

In the first part of Baba Yaga, the old woman is the mother of a successful writer. The mother lives in Zagreb, although the daughter has emigrated. Her mind still worked, her feet still moved, she could walk, though only with the help of a walker, but walk she did, and she was a human being who knew for a certainty that beans are best in salad, and that old age is a terrible calamity. .. Her firmly held opinions on small matters . her pugnacity .. her lack of tact . were signals of an underlying anguish that had been smouldering in her for years, an ever-present sense that no one noticed her, that she was invisible.

The woman asks her daughter to go to Bulgaria to revisit the scenes of the mother's childhood. As the daughter wanders through the streets and town beach of her mother's childhood, she feels uneasily like her mother's bedel, a paid surrogate; she is overcome by a feeling of despair that filled [her] like beer foam in a mug.

Intrinsic to the story are the eternal conflicts and tensions between mothers and daughters, the desire of the former to hold on, of the latter to be free. Guilt, love, annoyance and tenderness are all part of the mix.

In the first story, the reader is also introduced to Pupa, one of three old women around whom the second part of the diptych is centered. She is the gynecologist/midwife who was present at the writer's birth. …