by eugene vodolazkin
translated by lisa hayden
oneworld, 384 pages, $24.99
Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus has been much praised, especially by Christians, and rightly so. It is a fine novel. But at its heart, I suspect, the book is not Christian in spirit so much as Hindu—more particularly, Brahmin. This requires some explanation.
The story of Laurus concerns a fifteenth-century Russian man who in the course of the book has four different names, only the last of which is Laurus. He begins as a boy called Arseny who, in a time of plague that kills his parents, is apprenticed to his grandfather, a noted healer. Even while his grandfather is alive, it becomes clear that Arseny has exceptional gifts as a healer—and not only as a healer. He is a kind of seer, a person for whom the fundamental sequentiality that governs your experience of time, and mine, holds only tentatively and occasionally, and he often knows other people’s innermost thoughts and experiences.
As a young man he experiences a catastrophic loss that sends him into a spiral of remorse and grief that casts him out of his native village and into the wide world—a world of enormous suffering (thanks to that ongoing plague), social upheaval, religious questing, and pilgrimage. Everywhere he goes, Arseny sees wonders—some of them wonders you or I would see, some available only to him—and Vodolazkin describes Arseny’s experiences with hallucinatory vividness. As I read these passages, I kept asking myself what they reminded me of. It was not quite the magical realism of South American novelists. I finally decided that the pilgrimage of Arseny reminds me of medieval travelers’ tales, if they were filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky.
Along his way, Arseny meets teachers and pupils, those he heals and those who heal him, and continues always to seek some way to atone for his sins—a seeking so intense that it drives him to madness, or to holy foolishness, or both. Certainly Arseny is a version of the yurodivy, or holy fool, but he is not precisely a fool for Christ. Indeed, Jesus Christ does not play a large role in Arseny’s consciousness. He is in constant conversation not with his God but with those dear to him who have died, and this seems to be related more to his temporal dislocation than to any faithful hope for the resurrection of the dead. His constant proximity to what certain Celtic spiritual traditions call the “thin places,” where the boundaries between this world and another are porous, doesn’t seem to be related to any particularly Christian ideas. When another such porous one, traveling with Arseny through Eastern Europe, comes upon the future site of Auschwitz and senses the evil yet to come troubling the medieval air, we shudder along with him; but such disruptions of conventional realistic narrative—and there are many of them in Laurus—seem, in this reader’s mind anyway, to owe little to any identifiably Christian understanding of the supernatural. This is not a criticism of the novel but rather an attempt to describe how it works.
Likewise, the path that Arseny follows in his life does not track any distinctively Christian model of holiness, but it does, oddly enough, track very closely with a Hindu model, that of the four ashrama, or stages of life: Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (forest-dweller) and Sannyasa (hermit). These stages have provided the basic structure for other notable novels, including, most famously, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and R. K. Narayan’s neglected masterpiece The Guide. Though Laurus is comprised of four parts, in each of which Arseny has a different name, and each of the parts is, I think, connected in some way with the traditional ashrama, Vodolazkin does not obviously follow the standard chronology. For instance, though the novel’s first part is called “The Book of Cognition,” which neatly identifies the “student stage,” its second part is called “The Book of Renunciation”—and renunciation should be the third stage. Yet perhaps the chronology holds after all, because the very brief period of Arseny’s life in which he is a family man, a “householder,” comes early on and is fully contained in the first “book.” (More could be said about these correspondences, but not without revealing too much.)
The structural oddity, we can now see, comes in the novel’s third section, “The Book of Journeys.” For what Vodolazkin seems to have interpolated into the standard model of the ashrama is the medieval Christian idea of the centrality of pilgrimage, its constant emphasis that Christians are wayfarers in this world, its insistence that our necessary condition is the status viatoris. Arseny becomes a pilgrim almost accidentally, in response to grief and guilt, and while he undergoes many wonderful and beautifully told adventures, he does not seem to grasp what the point of such adventures might be. At one point he says to a companion,
You know, O friend, any meeting is surely more than parting. There is emptiness before meeting someone, just nothing, but there is no longer emptiness after parting. After having met someone once, it is impossible to part completely. A person remains in the memory, as a part of the memory. The person created that part and that part lives, sometimes coming into contact with its creator. Otherwise, how would we sense those dear to us from a distance?
This is beautiful, and in context very moving, but it reflects what Arseny is really interested in, no matter where he is: remaining in living relation with those who have died. It is something he will go to extreme lengths to do, or to pretend to do, as some of the most memorable and disturbing scenes in the book show.
At one point in his pilgrimage, Arseny and his companions encounter a company of saints—dead saints, but living to these pilgrims, at least in a vision.
The saints spoke using words from psalms and lines from the lives of saints that Arseny remembered well from childhood. When they drew the candles closer, shadows shifted along dried faces and brown, half-bent hands. The saints seemed to raise their heads, smile, and beckon, barely perceptibly, with their hands. A city of saints, whispered Ambrogio, following the play of the shadow. They present us the illusion of life. No, objected Arseny, also in a whisper. They disprove the illusion of death.
But Arseny is wrong. Death is not an illusion. Thus St. Paul: “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death.” This is a lesson Arseny struggles to learn.
In one of the most extraordinary scenes in the book—and I ask the reader’s forgiveness if I am revealing too much—Arseny kneels before the tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and for once addresses not a lost beloved but the Lord Himself: “And so, O Savior, give me at least some sign that I may know my path has not veered into madness, so I may, with that knowledge, walk the most difficult road, walk as long as need be and no longer feel weariness.” He speaks this aloud, and is overheard:
What sign do you want and what knowledge? asked an elder standing near the Empty Tomb. Do you not know that any journey harbors danger within itself? Any journey—and if you do not acknowledge this, then why move? So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.
Arseny replies, somewhat comically, that he just wants to know the “general direction” of his journey; to which the elder replies, “But is not Christ a general direction?” That Arseny does not grasp the full import of this question may be seen in the question that he in turn asks a few lines later: “Then what should I be enamored of?”
I think this scene is clearly meant to be the fulcrum of the novel—and the “repose” the elder speaks of is echoed in the title of the next section, “The Book of Repose”—but it is not clear to me that Arseny ever really understands, much less practices, what the elder says to him. Such repose as he achieves strikes me as all too consistent with what he wants from his pilgrimage’s very beginning, an atonement to be earned by lengthy penitence. To be sure, there is grace for him, but it strikes me as a novelist’s kind of grace, not God’s.
In the end, though I know that Eugene Vodolazkin is a Christian, I remain uncertain about just what vision of the Christian life is being held out to me in this book. It speaks well of the complex richness of Laurus that this is something readers might argue about—might very much want to argue about—but I am uneasy. I find myself remembering, as I reflect on this book about a holy man, Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov. Our hero Alyosha believes with all his heart that Zosima is holy, but many think he is a charlatan, and when he dies and his body emanates the odor of corruption rather earlier than one might have expected, those skeptics are gleefully confirmed in their skepticism. All this is a great trial to Alyosha’s faith, and perhaps to our own. In Laurus, by contrast, long, hard spiritual labor pays for sins, as it does for the world-denying Brahmin, while Russian holy men are praised and celebrated by countless thousands. And when they die, their bodies don’t stink.
Alan Jacobs is distinguished professor of the humanities at Baylor University.