It is the late fifteenth century and a village healer in Russia called Laurus is powerless to help his beloved as she dies in childbirth, unwed and without having received communion. Devastated and desperate, he sets out on a journey in search of redemption. But this is no ordinary journey: it is one that spans ages and countries, and which brings him face-to-face with a host of unforgettable, eccentric characters and legendary creatures from the strangest medieval bestiaries.
Laurus’s travels take him from the Middle Ages to the Plague of 1771, where as a holy fool he displays miraculous healing powers, to the political upheavals of the late-twentieth century. At each transformative stage of his journey he becomes more revered by the church and the people, until he decides, one day, to return to his home village to lead the life of a monastic hermit – not realizing that it is here that he will face his most difficult trial yet.
About a week ago I was listening to an interview with the author on BBC Radio and I immediately made a note to read it, so I was delighted to be granted a review copy of this novel from the publisher a few days later.
You can download a podcast of the BBC programme in which it featured here:
I love this novel - it is already high on my list of favourite magic realist books. I have said in previous reviews how much I like Russian or Slavic magic realism. For me it actually has more appeal than, dare I say it, the Latin American version. I think this is because of the role magic realism plays in Russian novels - it is a way of expressing the alternative to the rational. This is particularly the case because it is a response to a world view (Communism and post-communism) that utterly denies the spiritual alternative. It is also deeply rooted in the pagan and Christian orthodox church beliefs of the country. You could say that there is nothing magical in this book - not the holy fools walking on water nor monks levitating nor Laurus' ability to heal by the laying on of his hands - it is merely the Russian orthodox view of the world.
Laurus has an added appeal for me - it is a historical novel. I am a historian by training and am often disappointed by the failure of writers of historical fiction to present the world through the eyes of their characters. Too often characters have an all-too-modern scepticism about magic, when in fact they would have believed in it without batting an eyelid. Vodolazkin shows how historical fiction should be done and as a result the reader is utterly immersed in the world of late medieval Russia.
I had no problem with the author's fascinating use of language in the book, which at times becomes the language of the time and at others involves slang. Occasionally too the tenses change from the past to the present. Were this a self-published novel the author would be accused of not having used an editor, but this book has been superbly edited and translated. The shifts in tenses are appropriate to one of the major themes in the book - that there is no such thing as fixed linear time. Time is shown to be flexible and one's life through it is not just cyclical but spiralling. Several of the characters are able to foresee events and one in particular, Laurus's Italian companion on the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, does so constantly, allowing the book to travel to the twentieth century at one point. It is as if the different centuries are concurrent.
To balance this temporal fluidity the central storyline is in many ways quite simple. It is the story of Laurus' life from young boy learning herb craft from his grandfather to ancient hermit in a cave. In this simplicity it mirrors the accounts of the lives of holy men of the time. And yet Laurus' character is so well-drawn, without pandering to modern sensibilities, that the book is a compelling read.
As you can see I am hugely excited by this novel. It seems to me that it takes magic realism into new territory and so I recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in the genre.