The Russian Soul: Janet Fitch on Eugene Vodolazkin
IT’S HARD TO WRITE saintly characters. Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov is the least interesting of the brothers. Everybody reads the Inferno, but how many make it to Paradise? Yet Eugene Vodolazkin, whose second novel, Laurus, won both Russia’s Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana prizes in 2013, succeeds gloriously, giving us not just goodliness but an actual saint — a fictional wonderworker in the 15th century. A scholar of medieval literature at St. Petersburg’s Pushkin House, the Institute for Russian Literature, Vodolazkin propels us headlong into the strangeness and wonders of medieval Russia.
An orphan, Arseny, comes to live with his wise grandfather Christofer following the deaths of his parents in a remote part of Northern Russia. From Christofer, he is initiated into the folk healer’s practices, the secrets of the forest and its herbs, and knowledge of men through their weaknesses and sins. Early on, he reveals spiritual powers even beyond that of the old man:
The child thoughtfully kissed Saint Christopher on his shaggy head and touched the dulled paints with the pads of his fingers. His grandfather observed the icon’s mysterious current flow into Arseny’s hands.
In medieval times, the herb or remedy is only a conduit. The power of the healer lay in his connection with God. Christofer tells Arseny a seed held in the mouth is used to part water — when accompanied by prayer. Is it the seed or the prayer that accomplishes the act, Arseny wants to know. It’s all about the prayer, Christofer replies. The boy answers, “Then why do you need that seed?”
Following Christofer’s death, Arseny takes his place as the village healer. All goes well until the day a girl, Ustina, appears in the monastery cemetery, sole survivor of her village’s demise by plague. Arseny takes her in, and love enters the hut where only learning and selfless service had dwelled. But having begot a child with Ustina, Arseny reveals himself to be a possessive lover, while his confidence as a healer prevents him from calling the midwife. Worse yet, he dissuades Ustina from going to church for confession. When she dies in childbirth, he carries a double sin: responsibility for her and their child’s death, and for their unconfessed souls.
The novel is a treasure house of Russian medieval lore and customs, and Vodolazkin convinces us of the horrors awaiting the unconfessed dead. Not in the hereafter, but simply on earth. What to do with the bodies? They can’t be buried, only “heaped,” as the earth would spit them out again. Unburied, they are unable to find peace and cause poor harvests. If they were buried, people would dig them up when spring frosts harmed the crops. Buried, unburied, becoming exposed, piled, moved around — it was enough to drive even a saint mad. Thus, we understand perfectly why Arseny would forswear his settled life to hit the road and try to redeem Ustina’s soul through prayer and suffering.
Thus begins Arseny’s journey as mendicant healer, moving from village to village, indifferently exposing himself to plague, cold, and hunger, nameless and without destination, in the fine tradition of Russian mystics. Life is not about finding a place for ones’s self, but for one’s soul, one’s connection with spirit. He has, without realizing it, become that most Russian of all figures, the holy fool.
Arriving by boat in the great medieval city of Pskov, he is immediately accosted by long-time holy fool Foma, who gives Arseny (now called Ustin) the ground rules of holy fool turf wars, using another holy fool, Karp, as exemplar:
Did you know […] each part of the Pskov soil supports but one holy fool? […] [B]y inflicting bloody wounds on holy fool Karp, [I] induce him not to leave Zapskovye, the area beyond the Pskova. [… I teach him] Zapskovye would be like a lonesome orphan without you, and you’d create an excess of our sort in my part of town. And excess is depravity that leads to spiritual devastation.
Safe on the other side of the river, holy fool Karp shakes a fist at him. “Go ahead and threaten, you shithead,” Foma shouts back. “If I shall ever see thee here one daye, I will mercilessly smash your members. Like as the smoke vanisheth, so shall you be driven away.”
The fools are holy, but they also bash each other and defend turf. A great deal of the novel’s humor derives from this kind of absurd juxtaposition. On this earth, one can never quite break free of petty, ridiculous, earthly concerns. Even the ancient sage Christofer is regularly consulted about “bedroom matters.” Much of the humor in Dostoevsky has exactly this origin.
Equally rich are the novel’s clashes of language and diction, a savory stew made up of high and low, the ecclesiastical and the obscene, as well as the crazily modern. Translator Lisa Hayden had a tall order before her — Vodolazkin’s book in Russian overflows with Old Church Slavonic, contemporary slang, obscenities, bureaucratese, literary language. In translating, she avails herself of the contemporaneous Middle English Bible for much of the syntax and archaisms, but also a range of slang, curses, and other vocabularies. The result is a wonderful, at times almost Monty Python–esque blend of biblical vanisheth, synne, and pryde, right alongside shithead, jeez, and Brownian motion.
And so it becomes clear very early that Laurus is no seamless dream of Russia’s past, but a very clever, self-aware contemporary novel that nevertheless holds that dream deep in its heart:
The snow began melting in the middle of April and immediately looked old and shabby. […] Ustina no longer wanted a fur coat like that. She stepped from one melting hummock to another, cautiously watching her feet. All the forest’s grime had emerged from under the snow: last year’s foliage, pieces of rags that had lost their color, and yellowed plastic bottles.
Just as we’re happily sinking into a dream of herbs and forest lore, tame wolves, and grandfather Christofer’s wisdom inscribed on birch bark, those plastic bottles appear, like the Statue of Liberty peeking from the sands of the Planet of the Apes. Vodolazkin’s use of anachronisms such as “Brownian motion” and “shithead,” the visions of future foretold by the novel’s many prescient characters, all speak to our dilemma as modern inhabitants of a world made in — and of — the past. Underneath this medieval, mystical tale of the saintly healer, there’s an unrecycled present, suggesting the unity of time, past and future, as they would look in the eyes of a timeless being — say, God.
So Laurus is a quirky, ambitious book. In addition to the highly absorbing coming of saintdom in Arseny — healer, holy fool, pilgrim — and its “inside look” at Russian medieval customs and mystical tradition, its habits of mind, and embrace of the irrational and paradoxical which anyone who loves Dostoevsky will immediately recognize, Laurus is a modern, often comic novel nevertheless concerned with time and spirituality and the Russian soul as is perfectly embodied in the holy fools.
It’s a condition that embraces paradox: holy fools often behave perversely, doing what, to our earthly eyes, appears plain wrong. Some are mentally ill, but there is always sanity in their madness. Others are fools in the Shakespearean sense — unpredictable, unfathomable beings who have a special line on the truth, and are revered for their vision, treated with great respect, but also vulnerable, beaten, harassed, and even killed.
This is the paradox of the Russian soul. You can trace a straight line from these medieval times to Dostoevsky to the present era, the confluence of the brutal and the divine. In his story of the saint, Vodolazkin asks what life is, in the absence of saintliness or of a mystical flame, other than coarse and thoughtless existence. The book suggests that people still need the example of saints, and faith in miracles, to turn their attention to the life of the spirit.
The medieval period left a deep impact on Russian consciousness — far more than the Dark Ages did in the West. Christianity didn’t arrive in Rus’, the Russian world centered in Kiev, until around 1000 AD, and an inward-looking, spiritually oriented, medieval society took shape, which remained in place until Peter the Great artificially defibrillated it some seven centuries later. No Renaissance softened the blow, no secular humanism erased the memory of medieval life. As a result, Russian culture carries a lasting scent of its medieval past, into which Laurus vividly inaugurates us — a world rich with wonder and superstition, faith and foreboding, walled cities and plague and visions, impassible roads and holy fools.
Under the spell of Laurus, we imagine what it would be like to measure life in seasons and harvests rather than clocks and clicks, to walk in hallowed paths and receive ancient wisdom, to suffer and cleanse the soul. It deposits us, much like the 2007 Russian film The Island — about a man who becomes a contemporary holy fool — into a magical world steeped in voluntary suffering, devotion, and answered prayer, which stands in opposition to Western skepticism and aversion to irrationality.
Unlike a saintly figure one might find in other postmodern Russian work, Vodolazkin’s holy man and his medieval world are drawn with sincere, uncynical affection. As such, the novel embodies a break with immediate post-Soviet literature, which is heavily skeptical and leavened with irony. Laurus contains stylistic similarities to contemporary Russian works — the fracturing of time, the linguistic playfulness — but within the confines of a tale of faith. The result: an instructive saint’s life keyed for a sophisticated contemporary audience, and suggesting an alternative to materialism, irony, and despair.
The concern with the “Russian soul” and life of the spirit reemerges regularly in Russian culture — marked by a turning away from the West, the need to reestablish who we are in terms of who we were, and of how we differ from others. It’s not surprising, in these uncertain decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to see a book like Laurus take the big awards in Russia. The materialism that seized that country at the end of the Soviet Union left behind a spiritual hunger, and set the national identity adrift. Ironic literature can meet despair with a kind of gallows humor, but it doesn’t successfully address the deeper need. Laurus’s loving portrait of the medieval world and the holy man’s bildungsroman, couched in entertainingly playful postmodernist language, offers an enticing alternative to contemporary cynicism. And we in the West might also consider the extent to which longing for such certitudes might be surfacing within us, like an old water bottle under the snow.