by Eugene Vodolazkin.
Translated by Lisa Hayden.
Oneworld Publications, 2015.
Cloth, 352 pages, $25.
In an interview with Rod Dreher, Eugene Vodalazkin, author of the novel Laurus, says that he wanted to write about something good. In the same interview he expresses the thought that to write about something good is to go against the mainstream in contemporary literature. What Vodalazkin has achieved in the writing of Laurus is anything but mainstream. He has written a hagiography about a saint who lives in a world where time doesn’t exist, miracles can happen, and death never fully separates us. In other words, it’s a world almost like ours.
Laurus is set in plague-stricken fifteenth-century Russia. The main character goes by different names as the novel progresses: Arseny, Ustin, Ambrosius, and finally Laurus. For ease of use, I will use Laurus throughout this review. This is a Russia still haunted by its pagan past, but also a deeply Christian land. The main character, Laurus, loses both of his parents to the plague and is raised by his herbalist grandfather. His grandfather is a much sought-after healer who uses herbs, but more vitally prayer, to heal his patients. Laurus’s childhood is spent watching his grandfather heal people, traipsing around the countryside in search of medicinal plants, and learning the art of being a mystical healer. Without giving too much away, Laurus suffers a deep loss, and it is a loss for which he believes he must atone. The remainder of the novel sees Laurus traveling through medieval Russia healing people as he goes, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and finally ending his days as a hermit in the countryside.
A dreamlike, almost hallucinatory atmosphere pervades Laurus. Laurus is in almost constant dialogue with the dead, and time does not exist, although it is unclear whether Laurus understands this until the end of the novel. Laurus explains near the end of the novel—after he becomes a monk and fully lives the liturgical cycle—that “Time no longer moves forward but goes around in circles because it teems with events that go around in circles.”
There are more subtle clues as well in the novel that point to time being an illusion. The dialogue combines everything from Old Church Slavonic to medieval Russian to modern slang—sometimes in a single sentence. The translator, Lisa Hayden, does a good job of capturing this in her translation. Hayden says in her introduction that she likes to think of Laurus as “containing layers of language that are a bit like the cultural strata—strata found during an archaeological dig that witness aspects of human life, history, and culture at various times …”
Laurus is like an archaeological dig beyond linguistics. Early in the novel when spring comes causing the snow to begin to melt, “last year’s foliage, pieces of rags that had lost their color, and yellowed plastic bottles” are revealed. The fact that plastic bottles appear hundreds of years before they’ve been invented is mentioned without comment. There are other examples that support the interpretation that time is an illusion, but this should suffice.
But time does exist for God’s creatures. It is true that for liturgical Christians the liturgy is in a way a timeless representation of salvation history. And God, in a Christian understanding, is outside of time, but for God’s creatures time exists and is of vital importance, for we have a limited amount of time to prepare for the death that time will surely bring.
In a Christian cosmology time exists for all creation; all humans are subject to the ravages of time until the afterlife. Christianity does not preclude the possibility that certain humans may be given a gift to penetrate time for prophetic or other purposes, but Vodalazkin makes a much bolder and broader claim in this book.
In Laurus we see a general belief—that humanity is linked mysteriously to the generations that have come before and the generations that will come in the future—that is reflected in all cultures. This connection is a central theme in the book. Here it might be instructive to contrast Vodalazkin’s treatment of this linkage with that of another Russian writer, Chekhov.
In Chekhov’s 1894 story, “The Student,” time is real and is represented as a chain. In this story a young seminarian happens upon a mother and daughter sitting by a fire outside their home. The student tells the gospel story of Peter denying Christ after the Last Supper and notices that although this event took place nineteen centuries earlier it stirs the mother to such an extent she bursts into tears. The old woman wept “not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her.” The narrator goes on to say that “joy suddenly stirred in his soul” and the student thinks to himself that the past “is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.”
In Chekhov’s story we see time represented as real: mysterious yet in some way penetrable through epiphany, but in Vodalazkin’s story Laurus explicitly tells us that time is a circle. In Chekhov’s story time still separates us as the first link of a chain is separated spatially from the last link while remaining connected. Laurus is a monk strictly observing the recurrence of the liturgical cycle when he makes his statement about time. In this sense, time, to a monk, is circular, but we see in the language, the physical clues (like the plastic bottles), and the epiphanic episodes where time is telescoped and the narrative suddenly transfers to the future that in this novel time is an illusion.
This is a novel that will reward re-readings and much discussion. It’s worth pondering how the plot of a novel can “work” in a setting in which time doesn’t exist. And there are parts of the novel that drag a bit, but in all it is well-paced. Despite the clues that time is an illusion, the feeling to the reader and to the characters (outside of a few of the main characters) is that time does exist. Laurus is almost constantly on pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that is at once physical and spiritual; Laurus also ages and death is present in the novel. So time’s effects are present and the plot can move forward through whatappears to be linear time. Also, the ending provides some chronological and narratival resolution to the novel’s early tragedy, but to reveal either would be to reveal too much.
For a liturgical Christian the liturgy is a foretaste of heaven. When one enters into the liturgy one does penetrate time and space; there is at the very least an encounter through Communion with the being who transcends space and time, who is being Itself. Most Christians understand God as containing all being, which includes time, so in that sense time is something that can be transcended once a human being achieves unity with God. But Vodalazkin has made a world in which time is an illusion in general.
We don’t know if Vodalazkin set out to write an Orthodox novel rather than a novel that merely takes place in a deeply Orthodox medieval Russia. It is thus somewhat fruitless to speculate much about whether the novel accurately reflects Orthodox theology, but one of its great strengths is the way it transports the reader to medieval Russia.
The treatment of time in Laurus cannot, to this reader, be squared with Christian cosmology, but it doesn’t need to be. Ultimately, the world of Laurus is one that is enchanted, where the walls between past, present, and future are porous. We who live in a willfully forgetful era will do well to spend time in the world of Laurus, perhaps particularly because it is not quite our world.
Marc Mason lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and four kids. His work has appeared in digital format at Front Porch Republic.