I love Russian art (both literary and visual) as it has evolved through centuries, and have, for quite some time, wanted to immerse myself deeper into the culture of that country. I have also been trying to locate some or the other notable “living” Russian author—for once, not the usual heavyweights like Dostoevsky or Gogol or Pushkin or Tolstoy or Chekhov or Zamyatin or Gorky or Bulgakov.
I was very excited when I found that these two wishes of mine—the desire to know more about the historical culture of Russia and the desire to engage with contemporary Russian writing—converged in a novel called Laurus (originally published in 2012 as “Lavr”) that won two prestigious literary awards in Russia in 2013, Big Book and Yasnaya Polyana. It has been published in English by Oneworld (@OneworldNews) that has gained recognition for having released two recent Man Booker winners, Marlon James and Paul Beatty. The translator of Laurus is Lisa Hayden of Scarborough, Maine. She received her MA in Russian literature at the University of Pennsylvania and lived in Moscow from 1992 to 1998. You can find her at Lizok’s Bookshelf. According to her, the book blends “archaic words, comic remarks, quotes from the Bible, bureaucratese, chunks of medieval texts, and much more”.
The author of Laurus is Eugene Vodolazkin—one of the most experimental and critically acclaimed contemporary Russian novelists—who is frequently referred to as the “Russian Umberto Eco”. Born in 1964 in Kiev, he is an expert in Old Russian literature and has authored several academic books and articles. He is based in St. Petersburg, where he has worked at Pushkin House since 1990.
Laurus, I can say, is truly one of the most magical novels that I have ever read. It explores eternal and universal themes of loss, loneliness, faith, the quest for redemption, spiritual fulfillment, and above all, self-sacrifice and love—all of this set in a gorgeous natural canvas of forests, lakes, fields, seas, deserts and mountains, marked by disease, decay and other dangers. Beginning in 15th-century Russia, a period of plague, it tells the story of a healer (born in 1440), who is known by different names at different points in the narrative—Arseny, Ustin, Amvrosy, finally Laurus, also Rukinets. Arseny grows up with his herbalist grandfather Christofer in a log house next to a cemetery close to the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery (founded in 1397 in the area of Beloozero/Belozersk). Christofer instills in Arseny a great love for the human body and teaches him how to make home remedies.
Arseny grows up with grass under his feet, meteorites over his head. People come to him to be treated daily. After Christofer’s death, he continues to live in the log house, where one day, a young woman named Ustina walks to his door, stricken by the pestilence, utterly alone in the world. The two quickly get intimate, keeping their relationship secret, and Ustina is soon heavy with Arseny’s child. But owing to a complicated mix of feelings—extreme fear, carelessness, plain silliness—the young man fails to save both the lives before him. Overcome with grief and guilt, Arseny must journey without any possessions into the world to seek redemption. He continues through Russia, then Poland, westward still to Vienna. He is met by holy fools, attacked by highwaymen, washed overboard at sea. Finally, he lands as a pilgrim in Jerusalem. However, for his ultimate challenge, he must head all the way back home.
What’s fascinating is that the details of this grand adventure are woven with incidents from different periods, even the 20th century. The novel plays with our sense of both time and space, getting into discussions on the linearity and cyclicity of events, on horizontal and vertical movements of the human being, awakening in us through the collision of these dichotomies, a sharpened capacity for spiritual truths.
The novel is constructed in the style of saint’s biography or vita. It is like the written form of a certain type of Orthodox iconographic art that has the scenes from the life of a holy figure surrounding them.
There are a few other aspects of the narrative that I want to discuss here, after which I will share two longer excerpts. I loved the clarity and consistency with which the author explains the medieval mindset and worldview. He looks fondly, rather respectfully, at the misconceptions/confusions of the era, without the slightest hint of ridicule. For example, (1) the belief in a young earth (“The church was built in gratitude for the favorable conclusion of the year 1492, the seven thousandth year since the Creation of the world”), (2) no awareness of the ovum (“A child is conceived from male seed and female blood. Male seed gives the firmness of bones and sinews, and it is female blood that gives flesh its softness”), (3) the belief in a much smaller word (“Thanks to the story of the confusion of tongues, Arseny knew of the existence of seventy-two world languages, but he had yet, in his whole life, to hear a single one of them beyond Russian”) and (4) apocalyptic urgency (“This gave the populace hope that the conjectured end of the world would be limited to just Rus'”).
More importantly, Vodolazkin celebrates the convictions of the era, some of which are: (1) the belief in a rational cosmos where all instances of ugliness and deformity may have some role in a greater purpose (“The world is so varied, thought Arseny, remembering similar descriptions in the Alexander Romance and asking himself about the place of all these listed phenomena [strange creatures like satyrs and manticores] in the overall scheme of things. After all, their existence could not, could it (he asked himself), be an irrationality in a world that is constructed rationally?”), (2) the tendency to find existential/religious symbolism in the rhythms and laws of nature and culture (“A week hath seven dayes and serves as a prototype for human lyfe: the first day is a childe’s birth…the sixth day is for old age”, “The lion cub, Arseny, is always born to the lioness dead, but the male lion comes and breathes life into it on the third day. This reminds us that human children come to life only at christening…), (3) the ability to regard the produce of nature as an conduit of God’s grace (“Christofer did not exactly believe in herbs; more likely he believed God’s help would come, through any herb, for a specific matter. Just as that help comes through people. Both are but instruments…Christofer knew Who had established that association, and that was all he needed to know”) and (4) the habit of seeing God not as a tyrant who is forever in competition with humankind—as many secular moderns do—but rather as a parent with whom humankind must co-operate to accomplish great tasks; for this reason, the novel draws no sharp distinction between the medical and the miraculous (“Is this the result of our brother Ustin’s therapeutic measures or the Lorde’s miracle, appearing independently of human action? Essentially, the abbess answers herself: one does not contradict the other, for a miracle can be the result of effort multiplied by faith”).
Finally, a note on love and self-sacrifice. According to Vodolazkin (see this essay on the website of the English PEN), Laurus is a novel about love in the deepest sense of the word. And this kind of love naturally entails discomfort, a certain diminishment of, if not an outright denial of one’s own self—a process/act that might seem very repugnant and ludicrous to our contemporary egotistic consumerist sensibility, according to which everything must revolve around our own needs and wants. Vodolazkin explains his motivations on this subject:
In the novel Laurus I wanted to write about a man capable of sacrifice. I felt compelled to counter the prevailing cult of success in today’s society with something quite different. Despite this ‘moral’ challenge, my desire was not to preach; that is not the place of literature and besides, nobody has given me the right to do so. I likely asked more questions than I answered. Sometimes it is more important to ask a question correctly than to answer it. In actual fact, in an ideal world it is the readers who answer the questions, each in their own way. It is precisely this that creates the subtext intrinsic to good writing.
And so through Arseny’s final test—one in which he must be prepared to relinquish his body and even his saintly reputation—the author raises a thousand questions. What is true repentance? What is true justice? What is true honour? No rational answers emerge but a message is intimated, nonetheless, by way of a strange “paradox”—I would say—that shocks, and then delights, magnifies the heart of the reader.
Now the excerpts:
Arseny sees his Guardian Angel in a dream…
In the last of the homes he visited, Arseny fell asleep alongside the patient. He slept and dreamt of his Guardian Angel, who was warding off the scourge of pestilence for him. He did not furl his wings, even at night. Arseny was surprised at the Angel’s indefatigability and asked how he did not tire.
Angels do not tire, said the Angel, because they do not scrimp on their strength. If you are not thinking about the finiteness of your strength, you will not tire, either. Know, O Arseny, that only he who does not fear drowning is capable of walking on water.
The Scroll of History…
Arseny asked: If history is a scroll in the hands of the Creator, does that mean that everything I think and do is my Creator’s thinking and doing, rather than mine?
No, that is not what it means: the Creator is good but not everything that you think and do is good. You were created in God’s image and likeness, and your likeness consists, among other things, of freedom.
But if people are free in their intentions and actions, then it works out that they create history freely.
People are free, Ambroglio [Arseny’s Italian friend] replied, but history is not free. As you say, there are so many intentions and actions that history cannot bring them all together, and only God can holde them all. I would even say that it is not people that are free but the individual person. I liken the confluence of human wills to fleas in a container: their movement is obvious but do they really have a common purpose? That is why history has no goal, just as humanity has none. Only an individual person has a goal. And even then, not always.
More information about the author is available on the site Read Russia.