Roxana Elena Doncu explores female ageing in Dubravka Ugresić’s novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg. This article is part of the series ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’, guest edited for The Polyphony by Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, the fourth novel of Croatian-born Dubravka Ugresić, published in 2009 in Canongate’s Myth series, takes up the theme of the ageing female body and blends it with personal memory and Slavic myth to reflect on the contemporary ”culture of lies”, where beauty is only skin-deep, old people invisible, and old age stereotyped and pathologized. The versatility of Ugresić’s writing is evident in the way the novel is structured like a symphony, going from the first movement of At first You Don’t See Them, a general commentary on the invisibility of old age; to the poignant and emotionally-laden narrative of the second movement, Go There, I Know not Where – and Bring Me Back a Thing I Lack, a first person recounting of the narrator’s experience of her mother’s ageing and illness; to the sparkling narrative of the adventures of Pupa, Beba and Kukla at a wellness spa (Ask Me No Questions and I’ll Tell You No Lies); and finally to the mock-scholarly analysis of the archetype of Baba Yaga in Slavic stories (If You Know Too Much, You Grow Old Too Soon).
The first movement introduces the theme of the old woman, and offers a commentary on the invisibility of old age: no longer in her reproductive phase, no longer the object of the male gaze, past the age of caring for her children, an old woman becomes dispensable, invisible, non-existent. Paradoxically, as this invisibility, the social mark of the identity of the old woman, is multiplied by their infinite number, her ubiquitous presence becomes a measure of today’s ”culture of lies”: while promoting the prolongation of life, contemporary socio-politics rely on the containment of the elderly in nursing homes and similar institutions. Ugresić ties the notion of old woman to the archetype of the crone, Baba Yaga in Slavic stories, an identification which she sees as productive of liberation, as old women are also free from the constraints of caring for their husbands and family. This is why birds, symbols of freedom, occur as a motif connected with the archetype of the crone: Baba Yaga has bird feet, and lays eggs, an allusion both to sexual reproduction and the creative potential of the post-reproductive phase.
An invasion of starlings introduces the narrative of progressive disintegration which makes up the second part of the novel. The narrator’s mother is taken ill, developing a brain tumor after having successfully fought off an earlier breast cancer. The title of this second part is borrowed from a popular Russian story featuring Baba Yaga, and the lack alluded to becomes the hallmark of the disintegration of the female body. The Freudian notion of woman as a creature of lack is appropriated and related to the physical and physiological lacks induced by brain cancer: aphasia, anomia, and the mother’s habit of increasingly using diminutive words which mirror her diminishing powers of speech. The mother’s gradual loss of speech becomes not only painful, but also frightening for the narrator. As a writer, the identification with her mother’s suffering turns into a source of endless terror: she contemplates her bleak future in her mother’s present condition. It is this unnamed terror that brings about another avatar of Baba Yaga, the young student Aba Bagay, who accompanies the narrator on a trip to Varna, on the occasion of her participation in the contest ”The Golden Pen of the Balkans”.
The third part of the novel, the story of the three old women, Pupa, Beba and Kukla, going together to a wellness spa, can be regarded as an imaginative spin-off of the terror experienced by the narrator of the second part They represent three different versions of the crone, in different relations with their ageing bodies. Their names carry an overtone of youthfulness (Pupa means ”doll” in Italian, Kukla the same thing in Russian, while Beba may be a pun on the Russian ”baba” – meaning woman – and the English ”babe”), suggesting that the crone is present in every young woman, as a predictable future. Pupa, the oldest, is in a high state of physical disintegration and her only wish is to die: for her, her ageing body has metamorphosed into a menacing Other, as she is visibly losing control over it. Kukla, an instance of the woman-footnote, the woman as eternal wife and appendage of the husband, turns out to be a virgin, her relation to her body still a mystery, an ironic authorial commentary on the stereotyping of women. Beba is the roundest of all three characters, a woman on the verge of becoming old, in a permanent fight against her disintegrating body.
The last part of the novel, a mock-scholarly commentary on the avatars of Baba Yaga written by the young student Aba Bagay (another instance of the self-reflectivity of the novel) uses the mythological figure of Baba Yaga as a kind of mediator among variants of female ageing. Baba Yaga turns into a symbol of polyphony, multiplicity, metamorphosis and transformation. ”Baba” can be analysed as a floating signifier, as in Russian its meanings are multiple, going from ”woman” and ”wife” to ”old lady” and ”grandmother”, and colloquially also referring to a cowardly man. There are also innumerable variants of ”Baba Yaga” in the Slavic languages: Igaya, Iga, Yega, Yagaba, Yagabova, Egabova, Egibitsa, Yegiboba, Yaganishna, etc. Like the multiple selves that Baba Yaga can inhabit, women are also complex and multi-faceted. There is no single answer to the question of how women can cope with their post-hormonal, post-sexual selves. There are as many individual variants of ageing as there are many faces and interpretations of Baba Yaga. By decentring the notion of ”old woman”, the novel deals with the fear and terror of ageing in a humorous, but also profoundly humane way: each woman is an individual, bearing the traces of a certain biography, her relation with her body shaped by her personal history.
Roxana Elena Doncu graduated from the University of Bucharest with a degree in English and Russian studies. She completed her Ph.D. in cultural and literary studies at the same university, She is currently a lecturer in the Modern Languages Department at the “Carol Davila” University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest. Her research interests cover areas such as postcolonial and post-communist studies, world literature, translation and medical humanities. She is a member of the international research group on Literary Modelling at the University of Münster, where she has been invited to teach at the graduate school on British, American and Postcolonial Studies. She has translated over fifteen books from Russian, English and German.