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Eugene Vodolazkin: Лавр (Laurus)

Vodolazkin is an expert on ancient Russian manuscripts and he has put his knowledge to good use in this book. This novel tells the story of Arseny, who had four names. His nickname was Rukinets, partially because he came from a village called the Rukina Quarter and partially because of his healing hands, the Russian word рyка (ruka) meaning hand. As we will later see he has other names, including Laurus. He is normally called Arseny in this book, so that is the name I shall use. The book is written in a mixture of archaic and contemporary Russian and the translator, Lisa Hayden, does a superb job of conveying these differences in English.

We meet Arseny at his birth on 8 May 1440, feast day of Saint Arsenius. After a service of thanksgiving for Arseny’s survival – his two older siblings had died before their first birthday – his grandfather, Christofer, who is coming up to his seventieth birthday, moved to an empty house close to the cemetery, at the suggestion of the elder at the monastery. Live, O friend, close to the cemetery. You are so gangly that it would be difficult to carry you there. Christofer was a healer and people came to see him for cures. He had a detailed knowledge of herbs and other folk treatments. Erectile dysfunction seems to have been a major problem, which Christofer was able to treat. Arseny starts visiting him from the age of two. Christofer teaches Arseny about herbs and other treatments, but also about the ways of nature and the ways of God, all of which are bound up together. When he was seven he came to live with Christofer, because his father was worried about the risk of the plague in Rukina Quarter. As his father walked away, Arseny started to cry, not because of being left with his grandfather but because he saw the sign of death on him. Christofer confirmed this and, sure enough, both of his parents died of the plague soon after. Arseny stayed with his grandfather.

Arseny learns a lot with his grandfather. He learns about herbs, about the ways of nature and about God. He learns to read (Christofer has a series of birch barks on which he has written a variety of texts, some scientific but others less so, including a favourite of Arseny, The Alexander Romance, legendary stories about Alexander the Great). They tame a wolf which becomes like a pet dog to them and saves them when they are attacked. But eventually Christofer dies. Arseny is devastated but, gradually, he takes over Christofer’s role and people come from far and wide to be healed by him. One day, a woman Ustina, knocks at his door and asks for food. As she is the only person to escape from a village struck by plague, she will not approach him but he invites her in. Gradually, they become used to one another and become lovers. She becomes pregnant. When she and the baby die in childbirth, Arseny is devastated. He tries to keep the two bodies but, eventually, the locals bury them.

Arseny now sets off on his travels, keeping thoughts of Ustina with him at all time, and talking to her and seeking her advice and comfort. He goes to the plague villages and helps. He travels to the court of a prince but he escapes from there. He is mugged but does not seem to mind. He nearly falls in love again. He goes to Pskov, where he becomes a holy fool, along with two others, performing strange feats. We are next introduced to Ambrogio, the son of an Italian wine-maker but clearly not destined to make that his profession. He starts his career foreseeing a terrible thunderstorm, which encourages his father to harvest the grapes early and is therefore the only one to have a successful grape harvest that year when the storm destroys the vines of the others. He goes on to foresee other events, including the Florence floods of 1966, making his forecast at the end of the fifteenth century. While studying in Florence (where he meets Amerigo Vespucci, and gives him some good advice), he meets a merchant from Pskov, who predicts the end of the world. He is determined to go to Pskov and find out more and even learns Russian for that purpose.

Ambrogio goes to Pskov where he meets Arseny. The pair go off to Jerusalem and have lots of adventures, many of them unpleasant. Back in Pskov, Arseny has become more of a doctor and less inclined to be a holy fool. He retires to a monastery, where he changes his name to Amvrosy (i.e. the Russian equivalent of Ambrogio) and then renounces the world and lives in the forest, where he again changes his name, this time to Laurus. Inevitably, his adventures do not finish till his death.

Arseny obviously lives a life very different from a 21st century life. While we may feel that his use of herbs makes a certain amount of sense for the period, much of his medical treatment is clearly religious-based and even when using herbs he often looks to their strange properties for help. Indeed, his use of a religious approach can be seen, at least in part, as a form of psychiatric treatment. When he is a holy fool and learns about the imminent end of the world, his activities seem even stranger to us. Despite this, Vodolazkin never for one moment mocks him nor looks down at him. He treats him entirely seriously, as a quasi-saint, clairvoyant and healer. We see medieval Russia – obviously a time and place quite foreign to most of us – through Arseny’s eyes and it is Vodolazkin’ skill to make it seem both real and convincing, while telling a fascinating story.

For me, the obvious comparison is with Tarkovsky’s brilliant film Andrei Rublev. Though they are very different works and Rublev lives in the early part of the fifteenth century while Arseny is from the latter part of that century, both tell the story of a great man who was both part of his century but also lived somewhat out of it as well. In both cases, we see the world through the main character and through the eyes of a very religious man, for whom God, religion and, to a great extent, nature are very much an integral part of life. Both are first-class works of art.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Astrelʹ
First published 2015 in English by OneWorld