Eugene Vodolazkin; Trans. Lisa C. Hayden

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, is the story of Arseny, a fictional fifteenth-century Russian folk healer, holy man, mystic, and pilgrim. Orphaned at a young age, he lives with his grandfather, Christofer, who teaches him to heal the sick through prayer, a healing hand, and traditional folk remedies using plants and herbs.

When Christofer dies, Arseny assumes the role of village healer. He experiences distinct stages in his life, each of which corresponds to a change in his name. As Arseny, he is the village healer and the lover of Ustina. When she dies giving birth to their stillborn baby, Arseny blames himself and embarks on a life of atonement, traveling from one village to the next. Every good deed he performs is done on behalf of Ustina; every mishap or catastrophe he experiences is interpreted as punishment for Ustina’s death.

Temporarily assuming the name Ustin, he abstains from speech and is known as a mute holy man with miraculous healing powers. He reverts to the name Arseny, goes on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and survives an attack by bandits. Upon his return, he joins a monastery and is given the name Amvrosy. People flock to the monastery to experience his healing powers. He adopts the name Laurus in his declining years and leaves the monastery in search of a quiet place to die. Taking up residence in a cave near the village where he was born, he continues to heal the sick until he dies peacefully in his sleep.

This is a highly unusual novel that defies classification. Although situated in the Middle Ages, it feels timeless. The narrative is episodic in nature with unexpected shifts in time. One of its recurring themes is the proposition that time progresses in a circular motion. The past and future mingle with the present. The past is a constant present in Arseny’s mind, and the occasional forward leaps into the future occur through prophetic visions of the 20th Century. Arseny’s life journey illustrates the theme by coming full circle when he returns to the place of his birth to die.

Vodolazkin skillfully evokes the zeitgeist of the late Middle Ages with its pestilence and periodic outbreaks of the plague, its reliance on herbs and plants for healing, its superstitions, and its pervasive Christianity that permeates all aspects of life. Unusual events, prophetic visions, miracles, extra-sensory perceptions, and mysteries abound. Interpreted religiously, they are treated as a matter of course.

The diction is unpretentious, almost child-like in its simplicity, contributing to the feel of a fable told for moral edification. Interspersed throughout are conversations rendered with Chaucerian spelling—the addition of an extra ‘e’ to the end of a word or the substitution of ‘y’ for ‘i’. There is also the occasional lapse into 20thC slang, striking for its incongruity.

Perhaps one of the most endearing qualities of the novel lies in its sympathetic treatment of Arseny, a humble man who articulates profound insights in simple phraseology. He communicates with wild animals, treats victims of the plague with impunity, and has several narrow escapes from death. He abstains from worldly comforts, embraces physical deprivation, seeks simplicity, and desires nothing more than to alleviate the pain and suffering of others. A devout Christian who lives his faith, he engages in one-way conversations with God and with the deceased Ustina whose untimely death catapults him into a life of penance. His predominant quality is his humility.

This is an inspiring novel with elements of mysticism, magical realism, and allegory, all of which are infused with an atmosphere of fables, fairy tales, and myth.  

Highly recommended.

AuthorTamara Agha-Jaffar
CategoriesBook Review