Love, faith, and a quest for atonement are the driving themes of an epic, prizewinning Russian novel that, while set in the medieval era, takes a contemporary look at the meaning of time.
Combining elements of fairy tale, parable, and myth, Vodolazkin’s second novel (after Solovyov and Larionov, to be published in English in 2016) is a picaresque story exploring 15th-century existence with gravity and a touch of ironic humor. Its language veers from archaic—”Bathe thyself, yf thou wylt”—to modern slang, and its preoccupations range across language and belief to herbalism and history. Binding all this together is a character whose name changes four times over his lifetime as he progresses through phases as healer, husband, holy fool, pilgrim, and hermit. Born in Russia in 1441, Arseny is an only child, raised by his wise grandfather Christofer after his parents die of plague. Discerning Arseny’s healing gifts, Christofer passes on to his grandson his knowledge of plants and remedies and his role as village healer. After Christofer’s death, Arseny’s loneliness is dispelled by the arrival of plague fugitive Ustina, but the eternal love that develops between them frightens Arseny and leads to failings which will haunt him for the rest of his life. Unobtrusively translated, the novel’s narration flows limpidly, touching humane depths, especially when depicting sickness, suffering, and death, which is often. Vodolazkin handles his long, unpredictable, sometimes-mystical saga and its diverse content with confident purpose, occasionally adding modern visions to the historical landscape, part of a conversation about discontinuous time. Traveling across Europe and Palestine and then back to Russia, Arseny, who will become Ustin, Amvrosy, and finally Laurus, will eventually complete his long, circular journey and reach a place of repose.
With flavors of Umberto Eco and The Canterbury Tales, this affecting, idiosyncratic novel, although sometimes baggy, is an impressive achievement.