Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Talking about Dubravka Ugresic's Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

The Seattle Feminist Science Fiction Book Club met in my dining room last night, to discuss this year's Tiptree Award winner, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic. We numbered seven, and variously consumed rich, gooey chocolate cake, wine, and tea with our conversation. Though we talked for three hours, I came away from the discussion still turning over the questions that arose over the course of the discussion and confirmed in the belief that this is one of those books that, like certain movies, really needs to be read more than once to be experienced fully.

You will have noticed, I suppose, that I said "books," rather than "novels." One thing we did not discuss was whether this book is a novel. In the broadest sense, I think it is. In a narrower sense, not. It's not really an important distinction in my mind (and was apparently not in the minds of the others, as well).

However much we talked about the characters, we continually returned to metalevel discussion. The book fairly demands it, given the self-consciousness permeating all three of its sections. More to the point, though, I don't reallythink it's possible to talk about the book without grappling with its formal organization. The first section is a first-person narrative about a writer's relationship with her mother (who suffers from dementia and is dying), a trip the writer makes on her mother's behalf to the city her mother came from, and her relationship with a young fan named Aba, who has somehow come to know the narrator's mother. This section is written in the prose style of conventional realism. The second section is a fantastic picaresque tale involving three old women of three different generations (the youngest is 60) who take a trip to a spa in a foreign country so that the oldest of them (who is paying all the expenses with her pension) can die (which she's come to understand that she can only do away from home). Some of the characters are tangentially related to the mother in the first section. The prose is exuberant and over the top, delivered by a chorus straight out of a Shakespearean pastoral comedy making regular appearances (speaking at intervals in couplets, IIRC), and loaded with obvious symbolism and wild coincidences and improbabilites. The third section is a hodgepodge of "folklore" from around the world and purports to offer literary criticsm of the first two narratives and is written, supposedly, by Aba.

Somewhere in the first two sections of the book the narrative announces "In the absence of all ideologies, the only refuge that remains for the human imagination is the body." In fact, of course, there is "no absence of ideologies," particularly where women are concerned (and even more particularly where old women are concerned). The third section is a bloated recital-- and even celebration of-- ideologies, reciting as it does innumerable ways that old women have been hated from culture to culture. The first two sections delight in the body, in all its idiosyncratic particularities-- most pointedly in the bodies of the many old women that inhabit it (which is, of course, what makes the book so unusual).

Throughout our discussion, one person placed great emphasis on the anger revealed in the endnotes of the third section (which were chiefly asides and rants, rather than documentation), while another was troubled by the thought that someone who compiles such folklore (i.e., Aba), in some way became complicit with its attitudes through preserving it. Others mentioned that when powerless people are virtually invisible in their societies-- unrepresented in the public sphere, the arts, etc-- any representation at all is desperately welcomed, even when it is derogatory. Which then reminded me of how in the early modern period of European history very now and then an old woman would claim to be a witch simply to get some respect (and perhaps food) along with the hatred of their family and neighbors. We all recognized that the book's taking aim at the overebearing arrogance and absurdity of academic textual criticism as represented by the author in the third section of the book was also taking aim at any attempt by its readers at explication of the text. A couple of people felt this was part of the power struggle being waged within the book between Aba, the critic and fan, and the narrator of the first section.

At first the metalevel discussion focused on the irony of the third section of the book. But we continually came back to the relations of the three sections to one another. Were the three sections all talking to one another? We seemed to agree that they were. But the big question, which we never fully nailed, was what the book's (i.e., author's) attitude toward Aba and the third section was. Ironic, yes. Derisory? Probably-- but maybe not entirely. The playfulness that continually leavens the events and rants in the narrative makes the author's derision gentler than the inordinate length of the third section would otherwise have rendered it. I suspect I might have a clearer answer were I to read the book a second time.

Believe it or not, this is the first book club meeting I've ever attended in my life. I found it wonderfully engaging and stimulating. The group will be discussing Octavia E. Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy next month, and probably a book by Joanna Russ the month after that. If you live in Seattle and this sounds like your sort of thing, you can find the group on Facebook.

Oh, and in case you didn't pick up on this: I recommend this book as an interesting, enjoyable read.


Debbie N. said...

It sounds like your group didn't like the third section. Personally, I loved it. I enjoyed the whole book, but I felt like the final section put the book together and in context.

Timmi Duchamp said...

It's not that the group didn't like the third section; it's just that we found it impossible to nail the author's intention, particularly because the tension between the narrator of the first section & Aba, the "author" of the third section, underscored the irony of all the (very unscholarly) kitchen-sink mishmash purporting to be scholarly criticism. (Something that a scholar in comparative literature, for instance, would no doubt label confused amateurism-- which impression is, I (and most of the other members of the group) assumed, deliberate on the author's part.) Also, from what the group member who has read a collection of Ugresic's essays said, it seems Ugresic might have some rather jaundiced views about the sorts of nationalist sentiments (that have sometimes proven to be quite virulent) underlying Eastern Euopean and Slavic folklore generally.

In fact, several people thoroughly enjoyed the third section; a few (one of them me) thought that because it tossed around so many conflicting details that just about any interpretation of anything could be mounted simply by cherry-picking one's details must thus intended to be a satire of that kind of criticism, and thus needed to address the question of just how sharp the irony was intended to be. As I mentioned in my post, we pretty much all agreed that the playfulness of the book made that edge, if a little malicious, not at all vicious (as it would have been without the prevailing playfulness). Though perhaps I should add that I think just about everyone thought that Ugresic has a few issues with critics... & finally there were a couple of people who found the folklore stuff amusing but the "remarks" on the narrative irritating for providing so many d'oh moments, when Aba's explication (as, for instance, of the towel incident) beat to death with her "expertise" what was obvious & lovely in the narrative.

Myself, I would have liked to know whether Ugresic researched Baba Yaga mythology before she wrote the first two narratives or after. (I don't think we can assume that researching the myths would be necessary preparation for writing the first two narratives.)

Josh said...

It took me until the passage near the end when Aba styles Baba Yaga a "dissident" to recognize how much of the feeling was informed by Ugresic's own experience as an exile, one who (the 'pedia tells me) was styled a witch in her own country for her political views.