Fiction: “Babayaga” by Toby Barlow

babayagaShortly after Erica and I finished reading Egg & Spoon, I found myself wandering the aisles of the Yarmouth Library. Now, I am used to browsing the Portland Public Library and Curtis Memorial Library, in my hometown of Brunswick – both libraries are filled to the brim with a wide variety of reading material. When I go to the library, I intend to spend at least thirty minutes perusing the aisles. So when I wander around the Yarmouth Library and all of their fiction – all of it – fits in one room?!

Well, needless to say, I was a bit gobsmacked.

Instead of browsing through rows upon rows like I’m used to, I looked at pretty much every book in that room. (I almost said “literally” just now, but decided against it.) When I got to the B’s and saw Babayaga, I shrugged and added it to my pile.

It … it was weird. The book, and having so small a library. The whole thing was weird all over.

The story of this particular babayaga takes place in Paris in either the late 1950s or early 1960s. I can’t remember which, and the book has since been returned to the World’s Second-Smallest Library (I’m sure there’s a smaller one somewhere else – there has to be). The plot involves two witches – babayagas – that escaped Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and are now attempting to hide in plain sight. There’s also Will, an American CIA agent hiding as an advertising executive, who’s just been told his position is being eliminated. He crosses paths with the younger, more beautiful witch, Zoya, who ends up falling in love with Will against her better nature. There’s also Elga, Zoya’s older colleage (who happens to be much more diabolical than Zoya), and Inspector Vidot of the Paris police force, who spends the better part of the novel as a flea.

To say this book is surreal would be the biggest understatement since I said, “Man, this show Hannibal is pretty good.” Obviously it’s going to be weird, what with the Russian witches and Parisians that speak perfect English and the people being Kafka’d into arthropods, or however the fuck fleas are classified. But Vidot never really reacts poorly to being turned into a flea; nor does Will really react when he observes a magic fight between Zoya, Elga, and Elga’s apprentice whose name I cannot remember. I don’t know if it’s because the novel takes place in France and the French are typically blasé about everything, or if the author is attempting to make a statement about the supernatural being just as mundane as everyday life. But whatever the reason, there were numerous moments where I felt someone – anyone – should react like this:

buffy cast scream photo buffycastscream.gifbut instead, everyone reacted like this:

tv-addiction-emma-stone-meh-gif

(if I had madder Photoshop skillz, I’d totally add a beret and cigarette to that .gif.)

ANYWAY. (drink!) For lack of a better phrase, the entire book felt very … existential. Like, it almost – almost, mind you – almost made me want to reread Les Jeux Sont Faits by Jean-Paul Sartre. And while I do have a compendium of essential existential works (wait – is that an oxymoron? Dear Friend Thomas, care to weigh in on this?), rereading anything in its original French (no translation, hurrah!) is daunting, at best.

If I remember the back of the book correctly, Babayaga is supposed to explore love as a concept, and I’ll be honest, I … didn’t really get that. At all. Sure, the characters extemporize on the emotion, but nothing really resonated with me.

Although there were some pretty epic quotes, of which I thankfully remembered to take pictures before I returned the book to the library. Yay forethought!

The novel’s narrative structure is broken up by the occasional poem, or “Witch’s Song.” These songs are supposed to shed enlightenment on the plot through the ethereal voices of Elga’s former babayaga coven. I really liked this last stanza of one of the songs:

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.  [p. 110]

For all of her crazy, Elga really is a feminist:

“I’ll tell you one important thing,” [Elga] said. “If you ever marry a man, don’t take his name. Tell him you’re untraditional, make a scene, have a fight, but” — she shook her finger in their faces — “always keep that one precious thing. Men want to swallow you down, take all of you, even your name, like a big fish gulps down minnows. I tell, you, your name is the piece they cannot have. I have been chased by the law and I have been forced into hiding, but I have always used my own name, in every country where I have ever been, even if the police know it, it’s no matter. Your name is the only important word there is. If you lose your name, you lose your strength, and here amid the beasts you need all the strength you can get.” [p. 268]

And here we have Zoya’s final thoughts about Will and the curse she has bestowed upon him:

Maybe the owls will guide you back to me, maybe not, but I hope with my whole heart they keep you running the wrong way. I hope they make you suffer through it all. It is the oldest and most simple curse on earth, and when properly applied, no cure can be found. Some might call it love.

(i didn’t cite the page because a) I forgot to take a picture of the page number but b) it’s also the very last page of the book. oh shit – spoiler alert!)

In the end, if I were to rank babayagas, the Baba Yaga from Egg & Spoon would be number 2 (Mad Madam Mim would be #1), and these babayagas would be … very much below them.

Grade for Babayaga: 1 star

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