Arseny is born in Russia in 1440, or “the 6948th year since the Creation of the world.” When he is seven, his father brings him to live with the boy’s grandfather, Christofer; Arseny’s parents have grain to reap even though they are awaiting a recurrence of the plague. His parents do not survive the plague. Christofer raises Arseny, teaching him what he knows about healing, everything from setting broken bones and dealing with illnesses to helping couples become pregnant. He also teaches Arseny about nature and God. They live within the shadow of a monastery.
These themes – healing, nature and God – suffuse Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus. This isn’t a novel about religion and faith set in medieval Russia; this is a novel that places the reader firmly in the reality of medieval Russia. We live Arseny’s life. We heal with Arseny’s hands. We live his life, and it is a remarkable life. It is a story that moves in unexpected directions. And it is a story of redemption, and how a holy man, in the sense that medieval Russia understood “holy men,” finds redemption.
Laurus is an astonishing work. I approached it with skepticism because I couldn’t imagine becoming engaging with a novel about a holy man in medieval Russia. From the first pages, I could barely stand to put it down.
At times, it reads like an old story found in archives, complete with the occasional use of archaic language, which translator Lisa Hayden transforms into Old English for the English translation. The challenges she faced in the translation had to be prodigious; see “On Translating an ‘Untranslatable’ Book,” linked below.
And at times, it reads like “a journal of the plague years.” The plague becomes a kind of character of its own in the story. It is how Arseny meets the woman he falls in love with, although he wouldn’t have described it that way. It is how his reputation as a holy man is made – the healer who seems personally impervious to the contagion of the plague, allowing him to heal, often to the point of exhaustion. It is how he becomes protected by a prince.
Arseny will go on a journey to Jerusalem, a mission of redemption. His companion will be, of all people, an Italian who has occasional glimpses into the future, far into the future. Those visions help to make Laurus something of a contemporary story as well – God, and faith, exist outside of time.
Voloalazkin works in the department of Old Russian Literature at the Pushkin House in St. Petersburg, where he is an expert in medieval Russian history and folklore. That expertise likely has much to do with how Laurus is structured, how it reads, who the characters are and what they do.
It is an engaging story, a remarkable story, a revealing story. And it is, perhaps the most revealing about its readers. Laurus is a novel about medieval Russia that speaks directly to the society we live in today.
On Translating an “Untranslatable” Book – Lisa Hayden at Literary Hub
“People Need Other Things to Live By” – Rod Dreher of American Conservative interviews Vovolazkin
On the novel Laurus – Eugene Volodazkin at English Pen
Painting: Holy Man, the Soul of the Russian People by Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov.