by Eugene Vodolazkin
translated by Lisa C. Hayden
(Oneworld: London, 2015)
This new Russian novel tells the story of a fictitious 15th century saint, a wonderworker and healer. Though secular readers may be inclined to consider the tales of his feats “magical realism,” everything in the novel could be found in the life of one Orthodox saint or another: soul-reading, bilocation, levitation, multiplication of bread, companionship of wild animals, and so on. The book has been greatly admired in literary circles in Russia, and won some significant awards; but its popularity may also stem from the hunger that made Everyday Saints (by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, 2012), with its stories of modern-day miracles, a bestseller in Russia. There is a hunger for recovering the nation’s historic Christian roots, especially in the lives of its saints, both ancient and contemporary.
You might expect a book about a medieval wonderworker to be self-consciously mystical, written in a hazy, “spiritual” manner. Yet Laurus takes exactly the opposite tack, and is written in short, clear sentences. It’s refreshingly down-to-earth. When something miraculous or supernatural occurs, it is described simply, in a straightforward way. A quiet, droll humor keeps recurring.
For example, there’s an episode in which a fool-for-Christ chases away another fool-for-Christ who has trespassed into his part of the city. When Foma has chased Karp to the border of the river, Karp steps onto the river and keeps walking. Foma runs up to the water’s edge, tests it with a toe, shakes his head in distress, then steps onto the water as well. The residents of the town have gathered on the riverbank to watch them.
They bounced lightly on the waves, ludicrously waving their arms to maintain their balance.
Apparently they can only walk on water, said the residents. They have not yet learned how to run.
The story begins with the child Arseny, who lives with his grandfather, a herbalist and healer. (Arseny bears different names in the course of the story; the last he receives is Laurus). Indications of Arseny’s spiritual depth appear in childhood, and after his grandfather’s death he begins the wandering that will consume most of his life. It’s not a dainty story; Arseny is attacked by thieves and highwaymen several times, and they kill some of his companions. These scenes are very bloody, so Laurus shouldn’t be considered a nice, pious story to read to children. But even those episodes are described in a simple, straightforward way, without heightened dramatizing.
When characters speak, their words are not enclosed in quotation marks (as with the villagers in the example above). This makes passing between scene description, characters’ dialogue, and internal monologue very smooth, giving the story, even in its most lively moments, an underlying quiet fluidity.
This fluidity is especially useful because the author has a particular interest in the nature of time. Our ordinary sense of chronological time is not how time appears, to God; in fact, it is not how time is, in reality. Chronology is just a useful convention we on earth experience, one that keeps everything from happening at once. So, as Arseny grows in grace, he sometimes experiences time as unhinged:
From then on, time definitively began moving differently for Arseny. More precisely, it simply stopped moving and remained idle. Arseny saw events taking place on earth but also noticed that events had, in some strange way, diverged from time and no longer depended on time. Sometimes events came one after another, just as before; sometimes they took a reverse order. Rarer still, events arrived in no order whatsoever, shamelessly muddling prescribed sequences. And time could not cope with them. It refused to govern those sorts of events.
A few pages later, Arseny is present at a festive riverside banquet on a sunny summer afternoon. By his prayers, the daughter of Artemy the carpenter has been healed. The carpenter speaks of his joy, then:
Carpenter Artemy kneels before Arseny and kisses his hand. Arseny pulls his hand back and crosses the Velikaya [River] on the ice.
These breaks in sequence are effective, as are moments when characters speak quite naturally of events in the future, for example, saying that a local monastery is where the Komosol building will be built.
But less effective, to my mind, is the text’s dipping into medieval spelling and modern slang for the characters’ speech. (My friends don’t find this bothersome, so it might just be one of my quirks.) The book uses both medieval terms and spellings and modern-day slang in dialogue, aiming to disrupt our sense of time. The mayor of Pskov, Gavril, says to Arseny that he will “geue you a good rewarde,” but Arseny remains silent. Then Foma asks:
If I chose for him, will you geue the rewarde?
Mayor Gavril answered:
I will geue it.
The geue the great burg of Pskov, said holy fool Foma. And sufficient it shall be for his sustenance.
The mayor did not utter another word, for he could not give the entire city away to Arseny. And holy fool Foma began laughing when he saw Mayor Gavril’s distress:
Take it easy; jeez. If you can’t give him the city, then don’t. He’ll get it without you anyway.
I understand the intention of this literary device, but balk at it because, though countless conversations will take place on that spot of earth through the course of history, each would consistently bear the stamp of its own time. A mixture of medieval terms, contemporary slang, and modern-day natural speech wouldn’t occur. So I found these moments jarring, I think in part because they remind me of hippie-era attempts to make Jesus cool by rendering his words as slang.
This is a question that involves the translator, of course, and in her good-humored and appreciative “Translator’s Introduction,” Lisa C. Hayden writes of the challenges she faced and enjoyed surmounting. But I stumbled again at times when her “medieval” spellings looked intentionally fake. Take “exceadyngely,” as an example. I’m no expert, but that spelling just looks absurd to me. (I think what I see in older English translations is “exceeding” or “most exceeding,” used as an adverb.) Another is the construction “thou hath,” when “thou” should be followed by –st (as in “hast”). The translator clearly is smart enough to know what she’s doing, so this must be intentional, but I don’t see the point. Is it to shake us out of our suspension-of-disbelief, and remind us that the whole story is a fabrication? Why?
I don’t read Russian, so I don’t know whether she is merely honoring Vodolazkin’s use of fake-looking and malconstructed antique Russian in the text. Likewise, moments when the narrator delivers information in a long and equivocating way: “Basically, during the Middle Ages people read predominantly out loud, at the very least simply moving their lips.” Such moments reminded me that there was a narrator between me and the story, when I had been enjoying the story. (Also, the tic both narrator and characters have of qualifying statements with “Essentially…”.) But I had the same complaint about the narrator of The Brothers Karamazov, and it’s an objection I know others do not share.
(Let’s raise a toast to Hayden’s translation of one of Arseny’s thoughts: “These Zheshovites’ speech surely does shine with shushing sufficient for the inspiration of sensations of sheer satiation.” I read that over several times, thinking, “How fun it must be to be a translator.”)
I haven’t attempted to show the beauty of this book, the moments when it is profoundly moving, or beautifully constructed, or nourishing to faith. Those things are beyond summary. A friend of mine, who read Laurus before I did, said he kept being moved to set it down and pray the Jesus Prayer. Any book that has that effect has significant power, and is capable of having a therapeutic effect on the reader’s spiritual life. A walk through time with a medieval saint may be just the thing your soul is looking for.