Posts Tagged ‘Folklore’

Grand Tour #23 – Latvia. Tit for Tat / Mae Durham

October 10, 2017

I have not read a great deal of folklore, either for this project or indeed in my whole life, so I was pleased to track down a book from 1967, Tit for Tat, and Other Latvian Folk Tales, retold by Mae Durham, from the translation of Skaidrite Rubene-Koo. I believe I found a website giving the background to this collection: the two women worked together at UC Berkeley, and Mae Durham persuaded her colleague to transcribe and translate the fairy tales of her own culture, which she then tidied up for publication. Mae Durham was a librarian and children’s book collector of note. If you search online for Skaidrite Rubene-Koo you find a more grisly detail, that in 1972 her teenage daughter Aiko was abducted and killed. Nothing as brutal as that among these fairy stories, but they have their darkness.

What were the fairy tales of my youth, I was prompted to contemplate. I don’t remember many in books. I had a cassette with some traditional stories like Thumbelina on, but I was so indifferent to it that I stuck sellotape across the tab and recorded over it. Another cassette had Penelope Keith reading some of the wonderful stories from Pamela Oldfield’s collection The Terribly Plain Princess, about which Nick has written most evocatively here. Later, my brother and I were introduced to a magical book from my mother’s childhood, Whimsical Stories to Tell by Helen Williams, which contained modern (well, 1920s-era) fairy tales, including one that involved the pouring of some unpleasant-tasting medicine out of a window on to some raspberries, which were then consumed. But broadly speaking my childhood was one of A.A. Milne and Roald Dahl, not Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

There are 22 stories collected in Tit for Tat, most of them not longer than three or four pages, and a good bunch they are too. Perhaps one doesn’t expect much in the way of scholarship from a 50-year-old book of fairy tales, but this one has an excellent notes section at the back written by the pioneering folklorist Alan Dundes, putting each story in context and identifying its place in the Aarne-Thompson index.

The Latvian flavour of the stories comes from the presence in most of them of barons, that old baron/peasant dichotomy we all know and love, and the religious element. ‘The Devil’s Partnership’ is a pleasing story of how the schism between God and the Devil occurred. Turns out it was all to do with crops: the two of them decide to divide up their potatoes and the Devil foolishly chooses the bit above ground; then they plant some wheat and the Devil, still stinging from the potato fiasco, again foolishly chooses the roots. The Latvian tellers of this story, no stupid people themselves, would be all too pleased to identify with God. The lively illustrations by Harriet Pincus depict the Latvians throughout as a big-nosed people. Whether this is an accurate representation or not I cannot say.

A handful of stories feature the familiar tropes of the bad daughter and the good stepdaughter, the courting of the fair Prince, the final enaction of karma. The karma can be brutal: ‘Out of the box fire shot forth, burning down the house, the cruel mother, and the pampered daughter,’ ends one story. By and large, modern gender politics can take a back seat. ‘The Bad-Tempered Wife’ has a henpecked husband cannily losing his wife down a hole and eventually claiming for himself the money she has found so he can live a peaceful life of solitude; in ‘The Silly Goose War’, a man’s foolish wife blabs to the Baron that they’ve come into some money, so he gaslights her until her maniacal ravings about bagels falling from the sky convince the Baron she is but a harmless madwoman. There are a few straightforward morality tales, some of them very pleasing. I thought ‘The Poor Brother’s Bad Luck’, in which a rich man, by wishing bad luck on his poor brother, brings it upon himself, was the pick.

My favourite stories were the unexpected ones. My tolerance of whimsicality varies. I didn’t warm to the stories in which, for instance, a pea germinates into a golden apple tree, or the Devil is baked into a loaf of bread, and goodness knows why, because written down they look tremendous, but some of the odder stories I adored. The one I loved best of all was ‘The Bird and the Man’, in which a man wonders what eternity is like, walks into a forest, gets distracted by the singing of a bird, and emerges from the forest to find a hundred years have passed. Nothing more than that, just a simple, fantastical story told with admirable unadornedness.

Or try ‘The Fox and the Cock’, the shortest of all the stories, and not the only one that evokes Aesop:

A fox caught a cock and started down the road with him. The maidservant, seeing this, cried out, ‘A fox is carrying off the cock! A fox is carrying off the cock!’

The cock looked up at the fox and said, ‘Why not tell the maid that this is none of her business?’

This advice pleased the fox, who, in turn, blurted out, ‘This is none of your business!’

As the fox opened his mouth to say these words, the cock – shwirr – was away and up a tree.

Ah, well. So, the fox continued his way down the road.

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Grand Tour #14 – Croatia. Baba Yaga Laid an Egg / Dubravka Ugrešić

June 21, 2017

What do we, i.e. I, know of Baba Yaga? Well, this.

And only this. (The image on the video shows Viktor Hartmann’s illustration of Baba Yaga’s hut, which was Mussorgsky’s inspiration.) But not any more! Now I know all sorts of things about her, thanks to Dubravka Ugrešić’s book Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Jaga je snijela jaje), translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać, Celia Hawkesworth and Mark Thompson.

The book is in three parts, the first of which is told by a woman looking after her elderly mother in Zagreb and amounts to a sort of comedy of obstinacy, and the second of which is a longer narrative about three women (of whom one, Pupa, may be the friend of the aged mother in the first story) descending on a spa hotel and getting up to various mischiefs. The third part is a commentary on the first two written by an Eastern European academic, Dr Aba Bagay (aha! tricks), looking at the Baba Yaga myth in some depth and its use in the two narratives specifically.

What happens is easy enough to follow, but the directionlessness of the plot, particularly in the first part, means it’s difficult to make sense of, and for that reason I found it a frustrating book to read. That’s in spite of its lively humour, which is abundant in the second part and translates excellently into English.

Example: Kukla, one of the trio of women, is taken golfing by an American gentleman, Mr Shaker, but inadvertently kills him by hitting him in the mouth with a golf ball.

‘Heart attack!’ announced Dr Topolanek.

And then, smoothing his hair, ruffled by an invisible fan, he turned to Kukla and added:

‘I do hope that this disagreeable incident will not have put you off golf forever. Golf is an exceptionally fine sport.’

The spa’s resident masseur is the sweet-natured Mevlo, a young man who as a result of an injury sustained in the Yugoslav Wars has a permanent erection. ‘Just look at it, it’s stuck and it won’t go down,’ he says to no one in particular. When, following several years of rigidity, he goes soft, you can sense it is the result of some kind of magic.

But just what kind of magic, and what it means, isn’t clear, and so I leapt on the commentary section with something approaching ardour. It begins excellently, and informatively.

Baba Yaga lives in a forest, or on the edge of a forest, in a cramped little hut that stands on hen’s legs and turns around on the spot. She has one skeleton-leg (‘Baba Yaga, bony leg!’), dangling breasts that she dumps on the stove or hangs over a pole, a long sharp nose that knocks against the ceiling (nos v potolok ros), and she flies around in a mortar, rowing herself through the air with a pestle, wiping away her traces with a broom.

Increasingly, though, I got tired of the folklore too. I felt like the first section’s narrator, who rails, ‘If there was something I could not abide, it was folklore and the people who studied folklore. Folklorists were inane, they were academic infants.’ Dr Bagay, summing up at the end of the book, writes, ‘In some places you sighed with boredom.’ You got that right, I thought.

To what extent, I wondered, is the reader meant to take the commentary at face value? I thought of my beloved Pale Fire, where the reader is constantly conscious that games are being played and that the commentary is unreliable. With the commentary here, even the far-fetched claims about world mythology, for instance that ‘The Empusa is a female demon with one leg of iron and the other made of donkey excrement’, check out. Does it clarify or illuminate the stories? Not really. At the end it turns suddenly into a feminist rallying cry, which is something I am always glad to get behind, but that doesn’t quite excuse the mixture of bafflement and boredom that has preceded it. Is it really credible that the book is a satire on the demonisation of women? I’ve probably missed the point as usual.

The weirdness sometimes saves it, the diversions provided by an impromptu disquisition on depictions of women and parrots in art, or Beba’s fevered dream in which she is besieged by eggs, ‘arrogant high-protein bastards’. Still, it’s not a book I can imagine wanting to read again.

14 countries down, 14 to go, and still on schedule. If you’ve been reading these write-ups, thank you for your indulgence. I tell myself I’m not writing them for an audience, but that’s just to console myself in the event of there not being one. And so far, so good. Germany and Austria especially successful, and there is some good-looking stuff coming up shortly. Grotesquerie, fairytales, sexy sex books. Something for everyone.