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A History of the Island
by eugene vodolazkin
plough, 320 pages, $26.95

Ukrainian-born medievalist and novelist Eugene Vodolazkin achieved fame in the Anglophone world for his award-winning novel Laurus, published in English in 2015. His latest, A History of the Island, is a chronicle of a fictional island, written by many hands. It begins with the Island's creation, passes through the Middle Ages and modern world, and ends in the present. The book is structured as an official history, with glosses from two 347-year-old characters, Parfeny and Ksenia, a husband and wife who formerly ruled the Island. Because of their longevity, they can assess and correct the chronicle from personal recollections and reflect, from experience, on the differences between the medieval and modern age. It’s a perfect Bakhtinian set-up, a Dostoevskyan dialogic novel where diverse viewpoints are given equal time.

Time is a recurring theme. “All people have a common time,” Parfeny says, “but that time is nothing more than a dotted line connected to the personal time of each one of us. This is why some live twenty years, some two hundred. Or nine hundred. Their personal time is a reality but that common time is a pure invention.” In earlier epochs, Parfeny thinks, historians “looked at things with less bias.” Modern historians have a “sideways view” of their subject, while “a medieval historian . . . looked from above.” Viewing events sub specie aeternitatis, the medieval historian was never at a distance from the past, since eternity is equidistant from every moment. Medieval historians stressed the continuity of time, so much so that they “did not tolerate the absence of links in a chronological chain. . . . Lost links broke the integrity of time, which organized God’s world and anticipated eternity.” Thus Russian and Irish historians filled empty years with entries like: “Year such-and-such: Nothing happened. And there was great calm.

Things changed drastically on the Island with the introduction of the idea of progress. Faith in progress rode a wave of technological innovation, and modern technologies had violent repercussions. Parfeny and Ksenia survived nine assassination attempts. Because the assassins were fighters for the future, progressive activists dubbed them “fighters for a better life,” even though the fighters themselves didn’t know “what that life consisted of or . . . what made the current life bad.” Progress, Parfeny mordantly observes, “appeared on the Island with the first bombs.” 

Progress transformed the writing of history. Instead of chronicling the past, historians began to write the history of the future. The God’s-eye view of medieval history was discarded as obscurantist. Brother Ilary, a traditional chronicler, told professors at the newly-established university, “History . . . is a description of the struggle of Good and Evil, a struggle led by human hands.” An event is “any victory of one force over another,” and the “ratio of these victories and losses determines a people’s spiritual condition.” “Wrong,” say the professions. History is instead “an uninterrupted chain of causes and effects.” Ilary is unconvinced: There’s no way to write a history of causes and effects, since we’re limited to “links known to us, whereas most actual links are concealed from everyone.” 

The new, progressive history transformed politics. In the fifteenth year of Parfeny and Ksenia, reports Brother Ilary, “a she-ass came out to the Main Street and uttered in a human voice: Revolutions are the locomotives of history.” And then, after thinking a moment, she added, “We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Demonstrations began and, as Ilary observes, “demonstration” contains the word “demon.” “Demons organize demonstrations,” he says, because in a crowd it’s easier to alter a person’s nature. The demonstrations eventually brought about the Great Revolution, when Kasyan took over the Island, assuming the title of “His Brightest Futurity.” Chronology reset to Year 1, and scribes followed Kasyan everywhere, jotting down his every utterance to inscribe them on public buildings, most of them axioms of twentieth-century totalitarianism (e.g., “in art we value realism above all”). As the Island’s government changed from monarchy through revolution and civil war to democracy, predatory capitalists came from the Continent to exploit the land and its people. Elites turned into political parties and at last elected a President. We in the West are inhabitants of the Island, and its violent and tragic history is ours.

I’ve made A History of the Island sound like a humorless allegory. Allegory it is, but it’s far from humorless. Vodolazkin sets the zany tone early on, when the chronicler Nifont the Historian recounts an episode from Noah’s flood: “In one of the nonbiblical writings, it is said that the devil, wishing to sink the human race, transformed into a mouse and began to gnaw the bottom of the ark. Noah then prayed to God and a lion sneezed, releasing from his nostrils a tomcat and a she-cat, and they strangled the mouse. That is how cats, who are still a rarity in our land, came about.” 

The chronicles are full of omens and miracles, and as the Island enters modernity, of faux omens and counterfeit miracles. Kasyan was told that his Rolls Royce would cause his death, so he packed the car away in a garage. In his eighth year, he fondly remembered his Rolls and went to visit it. While admiring his luxury car, “a snake crawled out from behind the hood, wound itself around His Bright Futurity’s neck, and struck his ear.” When people observed that snake bites don’t usually bleed so much, Markel, Kasyan’s successor, explained: “this happened to be an automobile snake, the most poisonous kind of snake, which lives, as everyone knows, under the hood.” 

I’m afraid I’ve also made Vodolazkin’s allegory too obvious, but that’s unavoidable. He’s the one who made it obvious. Lest we be tempted to think that a flaw, we should acknowledge subtlety is a relative value and recall that Orwell’s and Lewis’s allegories were just as obvious.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Dreamyshade licensed via Creative Commons. Image color edited and cropped.

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