by Dubravka Ugresic
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia was split into 6 countries. Appropriately, this book is split into 3 parts:
- A daughter speaks about her mother’s memory loss.
- The mother, Beba, travels to the Czech Republic with two elderly friends for a spa vacation.
- The mother’s companion, Aba, gives a scholarly dissertation on Baba Yaga’s folklore and mythologies plus the misogeny or misandry behind them.
I would give each part stars in descending order: Part 1 = 5 stars. Part 2 = 4 stars. Part 3 = 3 stars. Very enjoyable overall = whole book gets 4 stars.
Part 1: The Best Bit
Narrator must cope with her Bulgarian-born mother’s memory loss…when “Mum” can’t find the right word she uses a rhyming one. Mum drives Daughter crazy with her obsessive need to control her environment. Not a product of the Alzheimer’s: Mum’s always been this way. Daughter tries to fight back by introducing foreign objects into her mother’s apartment and it’s on!
Daughter is a bit jealous of Aba, a young Bulgarian woman who caretakes for her Mum. Aba is named for ABBA, who were popular all over Europe when she was born. (In Part III, you find out Aba’s last name, Bagay, and it makes an anagram of Baba Yaga. Vladimir Nabokov would approve.) When Aba and the narrator travel from Zagreb (Croatia) to Bulgaria, Aba really starts getting on Daughter’s nerves. Adding to the stress, the beautiful, cultivated Bulgaria of her mother’s memory has been replaced by ugliness and poverty. The country is recovering from Communism and everything has changed.
Part 2: The Pretty Good Bit
Three “old witches” travel to the Czech Republic to a spa. They live it up–one wins big at the casino and hosts a pool party for her friends with champagne. They befriend a quirky young Croatian man who is working as a masseur at the spa. He must pretend to be Turkish to keep his job. The friends learn secrets about each other–one fought with the Partisans in World War II. One has a daughter from a previous marriage who won’t speak to her. One has unspeakably damaged feet and lower legs that she hides with a big fur boot. One has a gay son.
Old women and old age
Ostensibly this book is about aging, and how it affects women, mentally and physically. How they become invisible to men and how they fight to be seen by everyone, including their children. I say ostensibly because the delight of the book for me, beyond the unusually frank treatment of old age, was the glory of the many languages and nationalities: the words, oh yes, the words!
“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
If you’ve travelled a lot and you love language, you’ll adore this book. I sure did. The narrator lives in Berlin and visits her mother in Zagreb, Croatia, then travels to Bulgaria. In Part 2, the women travel to the Czech Republic. There are Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Slovene and French phrases sprinkled throughout the story. In Part 2, the young masseur called Melvudin falls in love with an English girl who can’t pronounce his name.
“Ah, Mellow,” she sighed.
And he thinks to himself in Croatian, “You’re never going to get it, are you?” Sigh.
Part III: The Not-a-Story-But-Still-Good-Bit
About 20 years ago, I was introduced to the idea of Baba Yaga as a strong female elder, rather than a witch/monster ( see Women Who Run With the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes.) Baba Yaga is a dangerous old women, part of a transformation ritual for girls into women and boys into men. In Baba Yaga Lays an Egg, the author explains that rather than an evil witch, Baba Yaga is more of a medicine woman. It seems that in some parts of Central Europe, the “witch-doctor” would pretend to push a child with rickets into the oven. They did this because a sick child was considered “half-baked” and needed to be placed back, symbolically, into the mother’s womb.
So you can see where the witch eating the children idea came from. I did not get to finish this part because the new puppy I was babysitting ate the book!
Anyway, I give it 4 gingerbread houses.
For more about Baba Yaga in folklore, a blogger at Something To Read For the Train has a line I love on embracing your inner Baba Yaga: “I’m going to build a fence made of skulls of the men who have crossed me!” Yeah, baby.