‘Laurus,’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

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.

My friend Dale Nelson recently recommended this newly translated Russian novel to me. It sounded intriguing, so I read it. The book was Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, a novel unlike any other I’ve read – and I expect you’ll feel the same.

On the surface, Laurus is a simple modern version of a traditional hagiography, a saint’s life. Arseny is an orphan born in 15th Century Russia. He is raised by his grandfather, an herbalist healer. Arseny becomes an herbalist too, and eventually surpasses his teacher. He gradually realizes that the herbs he uses are almost irrelevant; God has placed healing power in his hands.

But Arseny commits a great sin, which fills him with guilt. His whole life, and the course of his story, are afterward dominated by his passion to somehow do penance and gain salvation, if not for himself, at least for the ones he hurt. From being a renowned and revered healer he descends into amnesia, wandering in poverty as a “holy fool.” Then he becomes a pilgrim, on the road to Jerusalem. On that journey he meets an Italian friend, Ambroggio. Ambroggio is devoted to studying the problem of the nature of time – this is dramatized by the fact that he wholly believes that the world will end in 1492, but at the same time often has visions of events centuries beyond his time. He sees no contradiction in this.

After his pilgrimage, Arseny returns to Russia and becomes a monk, and then retires to the life of a solitary hermit (that’s where he is given the name “Laurus,” the last of several names he bears in his life). He dies very near the place he was born, reliving, in a higher key, the crisis of his early life.

Laurus is an eccentric book which operates on a number of levels. As in a medieval book, dialogue is not indicated by quotation marks. You have to figure out where characters’ speeches start. You might call the book Christian fantasy, but there are also elements of science fiction – speculation on the nature of time is central to the whole thing. Arseny doesn’t experience his life quite in sequence, and there are anachronisms – like plastic water bottles lying as litter in a medieval forest – that have been put there for a reason.

Theologically, Protestants like me aren’t going to be entirely satisfied with the story. The doctrine here seems to be that grace is not free – at least for great sins, one must first show penitence through costly sacrifices, and then – if God is convinced of one’s repentance – forgiveness may be granted. Arseny suffers greatly to serve others, denies himself about as much as is physically possible, works miracles, and yet is never sure of his salvation.

But that’s probably (I don’t know for sure) true to Orthodox theology, and so makes the book historically authentic. It’s certainly a moving story, though it can also be quite funny. The translation by Lisa C. Hayden is highly readable.

There’s some disturbing material, but nothing that should offend the average Christian reader. I recommend Laurus. It would reward repeated readings.

4 thoughts on “‘Laurus,’ by Eugene Vodolazkin”

  1. I mentioned the book to you, Lars, before I’d finished it — in fact I’m not quite through yet; but it’s good to know you enjoyed it. It seems it could be a good nomination for something like the Mythopoeic Society’s award for fiction — there must be many people ready for something different from the kind of fantasy that one sees at Barnes and Noble.

    Fantasy with solid historical knowledge behind it, characters we care about, a little science fictional flavor, and Christian themes…! Ah yes. To be relished when one gets the chance.

    (In case anyone doesn’t get the point, I’m alluding to Lars’s own novels. But I’m excited about Laurus too.)

  2. Sounds like “Godric” by Frederick Buechner in some respects. (Although there aren’t any fantasy/sci-fi aspects to “Godric.”)

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