Medieval healer’s life wins author laurels

A novel by Eugene Vodolazkin about the life of a 15th century medicinal monk became a huge hit in Russia. The book is now available in an English translation as ‘Laurus’.

An unlikely subject for a novel maybe, but Eugene Vodolazkin’s extraordinary tale Lavrus, on the life of a 15th-century Russian monk, became a literary sensation and bestseller overnight, winning Russia’s Big Book award in 2013. Shortlisted for a variety of other prizes, the novel has just been published in English as ‘Laurus.’

Exploring the nature of time

What is the novel’s appeal? Vodolazkin’s spiritual odyssey transcends history, fusing archaism and slang to convey the idea that “time is a sort of misunderstanding.” Towards the end, the eponymous hero “Laurus”, a medieval doctor, holy fool, pilgrim and, finally, hermit, is leaning on an old pine tree. Ants are swarming over the bark and through the monk’s beard, epitomizing the idea that he has become part of the forest he lives in. The image is typical of Vodolazkin’s poetic vision.

The forest is full of “creatures for whom home is a leaf and life is a day.” Sudden shifts of spatial, temporal and linguistic perspective recur throughout Laurus. The nature of time and the power of language are two of Vodolazkin’s crucial themes. Ambrogio, an Italian visionary with whom Laurus travels to Jerusalem, tells Laurus that, to God, “a thousand yeares [sic] … are but as yesterday that is past.”

The admixture of ye olde spellyng with contemporary idioms (“jeez”, “lowlife”, “son of a bitch”) is the most noticeable aspect of Vodolazkin’s innovative style. Translator Lisa Hayden has valiantly replicated these and other challenging features (like bureaucratic, ecclesiastical or literary references) and compares Vodolazkin’s layers of language, in her excellent introduction, to the “cultural strata … found during an archaeological dig.” Deliberate anachronisms reinforce the novel’s exploration of time, in which history is circular, rather than linear, seeming to return “to some starting point.”

A transcendent worldview

Laurus begins life as Arseny, who is born in 1441 near the Kirillo-Belozersky monastery. Orphaned, he learns herbal lore from his grandfather Christofer. Vodolazkin’s day job, as a medieval historian, means he is ideally suited to add plenty of authentic, plague-ridden details.

The elder who gives Laurus this name (his last of four names) sees it as apt for an aging healer, because the laurel tree is evergreen and medicinal. Laurus is both the word for “laurel” and the name of a Christian martyr.

The young Arseny’s medical skill could not save the woman he loved, and her death is the catalyst for everything that follows. In a recent interview, Vodolazkin compares this part of the plot with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The spiritual and psychological elements of Dostoevsky’s work have clearly influenced him and, though he sees his novel as “unprecedented,” Vodolazkin does have parallels among other postmodern, Russian authors.

He attempts to convey the idea that love exists outside time, just as Mikhail Shishkin did in his epochal novel The Light and the Dark. Like Lyudmilla Ulitskaya’s Daniel Stein, Laurus harnesses a range of styles to convey the peripatetic, religious life of an unusual human being. Vladimir Sorokin’s surreal novels also mix different registers to create a pseudo-historical montage.

At times Vodolazkin’s variation on the medieval “lives of the saints” can seem rambling or episodic, but it is always rich in ideas. Vodolazkin explores multifaceted questions of “Russianness” and concludes, like the 19th century poet Fyodor Tyutchev that Russia cannot be rationally understood. This is what leads him, with a gradual, but unstoppable momentum, to place faith and the transcendent human spirit at the center of his powerful worldview.

RBTH Network