Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus is one of those rare novels that once you start you won’t want to put down, whether you are a person of faith or not. A powerful story about a Russian Orthodox healer, holy man, and pilgrim, Laurus becomes a pilgrimage for each reader, one that surely will change your life if you are open to its beauty, depth, and truth.
Laurus, Vodolazkin’s second novel, is set in the Middle Ages and follows the life of a child who is named Arseny at his baptism seven days after his birth on May 8, 1440. In the last years of his life, he will be given the name Laurus. Arseny’s life seems summarized by the names he receives and the fact that the day of his birth is a Friday on the Gregorian and Sunday on the Julian calendar.
Arseny is the third child of his mother and the only one to survive beyond the first year of birth. As a child, Arseny spends hours with his grandfather Christofer, a healer, gathering herbs in the woods.
Two events suggest the special nature of this child. When he learns that his grandfather lives alone because his grandmother died years before, Arseny decides to fly to heaven to meet her. Like Icarus he fails in flight, but unlike Icarus he gets away with only a fractured foot.
Christofer calmly sets the fracture and takes Arseny to Kirillov Monastery nearby. Once there, Arseny is told by the elder who guides his grandfather:
“I know you are planning to go to heaven, said the Elder Nikandr, as soon as he saw Arseny. Forgive me, but I think your course of action is outlandish. When the time comes, I will tell you how it is done.”
Out in the woods one day, Christofer and Arseny encounter a wolf. Arseny tames the wolf with a touch of his hand, and the wolf eventually becomes a companion and protector. Like the wolf, the villagers know the power of Arseny’s presence and touch:
“An appearance from the child cheered people up. All the residents of the Rukina Quarter felt it. When they took Arseny by the hand, they did not want to let go. When they kissed his hair, they felt as if they had drunk from a deep, fresh spring. There was something in Arseny that eased lives that were anything but simple.”
Arseny’s somewhat idyllic childhood soon is shattered. His parents die from the plague and eventually, when he is fifteen, his grandfather dies as well. Left alone, he takes up the healing practice of his grandfather but falls prey to selfishness and the sin for which he will spend the rest of his life atoning.
And so his years of difficult wandering and pilgrimage begin. In his wanderings he becomes a renowned healer, loses everything after being robbed and left for dead, and lives among holy fools. He will recover and travel across Europe and sea to Jerusalem. Through his suffering he learns what it means to love.
Good or evil, the characters he encounters along the way are memorable, particularly the good, among them the holy fool Foma, the prophet-academic Ambrogio Flecchia who becomes Arseny’s greatest friend, and the Elder Innokenty.
Laurus has been compared to The Canterbury Tales and The Name of the Rose, but this is somewhat unhelpful. Like Chaucer and Eco’s works, Laurus is set in the Middle Ages and includes the story of a pilgrim and a pilgrimage. But it’s not a collection of tales, comedic, or critical of the Church and faith, nor is it a murder mystery with a detective in clerical garb. The genuine infusion of faith throughout the narrative of Laurus makes any comparison with Eco’s popular work of historical fiction, The Name of the Rose (1980), completely off the mark.
Despite some contemporary depictions of sin and violence, Laurus has scent of sanctity, such as you find in Hieroschemamonk Feofil: Fool-for-Christ’s-Sake and Saint Symeon of Emesa: The Fool for Christ’s Sake, as well as lives of saints such as Seraphim of Sarov. The name Laurus, in fact, reveals much about the novel, since it is a monastic name and points to Lavra and Laura, names for a type of monastery.
A scholar of medieval Russian history and folklore, Vodolazkin clearly has absorbed the idea suggested in the introduction to Hieroschemamonk Feofil that to understand Russian history even in a minimal way, one must know the lives of the Russian Orthodox saints, ascetics, and elders.
No matter his name, Arseny, Amvrosy, or Laurus is a memorable character you will come to know as few other characters in novels. Through his remarkable character, Vodolazkin breaks down the illusions of time and death so that we experience in a small way what it means to see the world through God’s eyes, to live in God’s time, not man’s, and despite sin and obstacles to live as God wills.
A novel about the Christian experience and the journey to God at its deepest level, Laurus too is a book about the Russian experience and a human life fully lived that cannot but fail to open the eyes and heart of any reader.