Book review - Laurus

Laurus, the second novel by Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, has a vivid sense of time and place, as you might expect from an author who is also an expert in medieval history. Interweaving an impressive array of images, stories, parables and superstitions, Vodolazkin builds a convincing portrait of 15th-century Europe, a God-fearing place riven by disease and hardship. Yet he also conveys a very contemporary sense of the contingency of identity and of the malleability of time. Little wonder that he has been compared to Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose (1980) cleverly melded postmodern sensibilities with a medieval setting.
The book’s eponymous hero is a healer who, in the course of his life, becomes a pilgrim, holy fool and hermit; in each of the four sections, he takes on a new identity. He is born in Rus in 1440 and christened Arseny. After losing his parents to the plague, he is raised by his grandfather, a herbalist who teaches the boy about the healing power of plants. They enjoy a quiet, simple life, and Arseny learns to read and write.

After his grandfather’s death, 15-year-old Arseny remains in rural seclusion, serving as the village doctor. His feelings of emptiness are relieved only by the arrival of Ustina, a young woman carrying the plague. He cures her and they enjoy a brief but intense happiness until her death in childbirth. Unmarried, and wishing to keep her existence a secret because of their “living in sin”, Arseny had refused to find a midwife to help Ustina deliver the stillborn child. Grief-and guilt-stricken, he travels from village to village treating people through prayer and his healing hands.

Divine idiocy is a recurring theme in Russian literature, where the distinction between sanity and madness is deliberately blurred. On reaching Pskov, in the far west, Arseny resolves “to forget everything and live from now on as if there had been nothing in my life before, as if I had just appeared on earth right now”. He becomes a holy fool, residing in the town cemetery for 14 years — “the earthe as a bed, the heavens as a roof”. He throws stones at pious people’s houses — he can see the devils gathered outside, unable to enter — and kisses the walls of a sinner’s home, by which the exiled angels shelter. As Vodolazkin wrote in a 2013 essay, “Contemporary Russia desperately needs people who can pelt devils with stones, but even more, it needs those who can talk with angels.” Perhaps the jury that awarded Laurus Russia’s prestigious Big Book Prize in 2013 felt the same.

Throughout the novel there is an impending sense of doom. Many of the characters Arseny encounters believe that the apocalypse is nigh. One of those attempting to calculate the exact date is Ambrogio, a young Italian whose passion for history is matched by his startling visions of the future. Ambrogio meets Arseny in Pskov and they become travelling companions on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sharing an emotional and intellectual bond, they survive encounters with highwaymen, a trek through the Alps and a storm at sea.

As an old man, Arseny, now named Laurus, muses that “life resembles a mosaic that scatters into pieces”. Vodolazkin’s work is a similar montage of scenes. Humanity, history and culture collide, observed from different perspectives. He also writes with wry humour about his fellow countrymen. “You Russians really like talking about death,” a merchant chides Arseny and Ambrogio, “And it distracts you from getting on with your lives.”

Given such complexity, the fluidity of Lisa Hayden’s English translation is commendable. Though some readers may be deterred by the archaic flourishes and sometimes fable-like narrative, Laurus cannot be faulted for its ambition or for its poignant humanity. It is a profound, sometimes challenging, meditation on faith, love and life’s mysteries. Laurus spends his last years in a forest cave near the Rukina Quarter, his childhood home. Here, he loses all sense of time, aware only of the passing seasons; indeed, he concludes that time is discontinuous, that its “individual parts were not connected to one another, much as there was no connection between the blond little boy from Rukina Quarter . . . and the gray-haired wayfarer, almost an old man [that he now is]”. The sense of fracture is reflected in Vodolazkin’s style, which blends archaisms, modern slang and passages from medieval texts.

Originally published by the Financial Times