Laurus. A non-historical novel

Laurus. A non-historical novel
Laurus. A non-historical novel
Astrel (2012)
ISBN 978-5-17-078790-6
448 pages
 A big problem facing any translator of Evgenii Vodolazkin’s bold and brilliant novel “Laurus” is that in Russian, the title refers to both the 2nd century saint Laurus and to the Laurel tree. Both references are important to the thematics of the novel. The former characterizes the novel as an account of the life of a medieval saint, which undoubtedly it is, albeit a fictional one. The latter connotes the herbal cures that the main protagonist Arsenii learns from his grandfather and mentor Christofor in his formative years. It also suggests his immense achievements - somewhat ironically, since his humility forbids him from ever recognizing his greatness. Most importantly, though, it is the theme of transformation that laurel evokes via Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree in order to escape from the designs of Apollo. The notion of change is evident in the four parts of the novel, each one dedicated to a phase of the life of Arsenii, who acquires new names to accompany each phase of his life: doctor/ herbalist, holy fool, pilgrim and monk, the final transformation bestowing upon him the eponymous title, Laurus.

The Symbolist Alexander Blok used the myth of Daphne and her transformation into a laurel tree as a metaphor for his belief in Soloviev’s notion of Sophia, the divine feminine, latent in the natural world. The novel in a similar vein beautifully captures the worldview of the Middle Ages of the immanent spirituality and interconnectedness of the material world and all phenomena. All Arsenii’s efforts at healing, his quest for knowledge and his travels are all dimensions of his spiritual quest. This involves self-sacrifice and the purification of his soul through asceticism and altruism, in order to expiate the guilt that he feels for the death of his beloved Ustina and their son. His life in essence becomes a prayer of/for redemption and salvation.

The subtitle “A non-historic novel” is a statement of Vodolazkin’s intent to deliver his narrative of Arsenii’s life as somehow non-chronological or more precisely outside history. Vodolazkin achieves this with the language that he uses throughout the book, which is a mixture of a stylized Russian of the Middle Ages and contemporary Russian argot, alongside a peculiarly flat officialese - a minimal non-emotive language, legacy of the soviet report. Partly as a result of this narrative strategy and his considerable literary skills, Vodolazkin’s portrait of Arsenii and Medieval Russia is very immediate and at times startlingly intimate. This breaks down any notion of events viewed through an historical prism. Further to this and more radically Vodolazkin chooses to layer time in the novel, rather than treat it as linear.

This treatment of time is a crucial element in the novel. The circularity of time, the circadian rhythm, the week, the cycle of religious festivals and seasons have ascendancy over chronos or linear time, characterized by the two parallel calendars of Anno Mundi and Anno Domini. Arsenii in his later years makes a decision to use only the time phrase “One day” when recounting incidents from his life. Alone in his cave he has lost the thread of time, though he still knows when it is Sunday. Both Arsenii and Vodolazkin seem to share a distrust for the calendar as timeline. The AD and AM calendars are used to make calculations about the impending apocalypse which hangs over the people, in the same way that the plague does, serving to imbue their lives with an acute sense of their own mortality. The apocalypse, of course, never happens.

Time’s arrow is blunt in Vodolazkin’s world. Christophor quotes the Greek classics, of which he could have known nothing, since there were yet to be translated into Russian. Characters see images of their older/younger selves in the flames of homefires. Ambrodzho, Arsenii’s Italian confrere, who possesses the gift of prophecy, tells stories of the lives of people in 20th century Russia, of the lives of academics and of the steeplejack who sets the angel on the spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. At one point Vodolazkin describes the thaw in a spring of the late 15th Century, revealing plastic bottles amidst the dead branches and leaves.

In an interview with the newspaper “Vesti”, Vodolazkin made the following comments about the perception of time and the author’s treatment of it:

“People had a different perception of time in the Middle Ages. It is not just because they matured more rapidly and lived a shorter time, but their days were less cluttered with events and consequently they didn’t need to count in minutes. What is important is that time was locked inside a view sub specie aeternitatis, that is, in an eternal perspective. I would recommend the writer to have such a view. A good writer must always be slightly removed from the here and now, must be less caught up in the transient moment.”

This treatment of time creates a rich texture in the novel, where through Arsenii’s Jerusalem pilgrimage Medieval Russia is juxtaposed with both Europe of the Florentine renaissance and contemporary Russia. Taking into account this wide frame the novel can be viewed as an attempt to understand Russia,( the final exchange also supports such an analysis), then Vodolazkin chooses to do so, not through the epic, but through the lives of individuals that have only a tangential bearing on the movement of history. It is really a meditation on the Russian soul, evoking Tiuchev’s line “Russia is not to be understood with the mind.”

Ultimately Arsenii’s life itself forms a circle, and Vodolazkin deftly leads the reader around to its extremely moving endpoint in this eminently readable, rich and profound book. 

Reviewed by Simon Knapper