Laurus, the second novel by Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin (after Solovyov and Larionov, due to appear in English in 2016), is in one breath, a timeless epic, trekking the well-trodden fields of faith, love, and the infinite depth of loss and search for meaning. In another, it is pointed, touching, and at times humorous, unpredictably straying from the path and leading readers along a wild chase through time, language, and medieval Europe. Winner of both the National Big Book Prize (Russia) and the Yasnaya Polyana Award, Vodolazkin’s experimental style envelopes the reader, drawing them into a world far from their own, yet indescribably intimate.
Spanning late fifteenth-century Russia to early twentieth-century Italy, the novel recounts the multiple lives (or stages of life) of a saint and the story of his becoming. Born Arseny in 1440, he is raised by his grandfather after his parents die from the plague that torments much of Russia and Europe. Recognising the boy’s gift for healing, his grandfather instills in him knowledge of healing and herbalism. Arseny aids the pestilence-stricken villagers, yet his powers of healing are overshadowed by his helplessness in preventing his grandfather’s death, as well as the passing of his beloved Ustina. Abandoning his village, past and namesake, Arseny begins a voyage that will transcend country and identity. Kaleidoscopic in his language and reach, Vodolazkin takes us on a journey of discovery and absolution, threaded together through the various, often mystical lives of Arseny as a healer, husband, holy fool, pilgrim and hermit.
Vodolazkin’s skill with language leaves a resonating after-effect. Good writers are able to peer through the lens of a particular time and space and stare into the infinite; Vodolazkin simultaneously embraces and rejects this image, often toying with the reader’s sense of spacial and temporal awareness. An expert in medieval history and folklore, he beautifully constructs scenes of fifteenth-century Russia and Europe, placing the reader in a timeless trance, before jerking the rug out from under your feet with such a reference as to a monastery located on the future Komsomol Square of Pskov.
The outcome of Vodolazkin’s constant construction and deconstruction of the typical framework gives a timeless quality to his characters and the themes that arise within Laurus. Indeed our protagonist Arensy embodies the mystical life of a saint that history glorifies: he lives on the fringe of life, feeling his actions occur both as a future experience and a past memory.
Vodolazkin jumps between archaic, medieval speech and contemporary slang, and interjects images of ancient Jerusalem with dreamscapes of Italy half a century later, envisioned by Arseny’s Florentine travel partner who is fixated on determining the certainty of the world’s end in the year 1500.
The pages, dotted with names of anachronistic herbs and forgotten family lineages – not to mention Vodolazkin’s complex interplay between modern and medieval Russian – do not make for a simple or smooth translation. Lisa Hayden should be commended for her effort, for she achieves just that. Subtly, she blends the familiar and unfamiliar, trusting the organic process through which the book unfolds and allowing the language to speak for itself.
Laurus excels in its reflective imagery. Love is shown through loss; death through agelessness; words through silence; the human in the divine. In life’s extremities, Vodolazkin has found a subtle balance and uses it to impressive effect.