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Laurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin

“And so I, my love, am going to the very center of the earth. I am going to the point that is closest of all to Heaven. If my words are destined to fly all the way to Heaven, then it will happen there. And all my words will be about you.”

I read Laurus by Evgenij(anglicized to Eugene) Vodolazkin several days ago and the moment I finished the last line I knew I just read a modern masterpiece. I prefer reading older books, the 19th century being home to my favorite novels. But, now and then I come up across a new book that is just perfect, Laurus is one of them, a pure masterpiece that belongs on the shelf next to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Laurus is a deep novel that explores faith, time, religion, love, Christian Orthodoxy, and folk-mysticism through the spiritual journey of a 15th-century Russian healer turned Orthodox saint. Arseny, orphaned by the plague is raised by his grandfather, a local healer, herbalist, and prolific writer, and after his death, Arseny takes over as the village doctor. But his life is upturned when he fails to save his beloved Ustina and his child as they die in childbirth, unwed and without having received communion. Guilty and devastated, Arseny who begins a journey dedicated to spiritual redemption. A journey that where he spends years healing the dying across plague struck Russia, becoming a destitute Holy Fool living off of bread scraps in a cemetery, traveling with an Italian as Pilgrims to Jerusalem, and finally becoming a monk and Saint after his return to Russia.

The novel is beautifully written in an atmospheric mythical tone that blends the real and the metaphysical. Time flows in peculiar ways and prophesy and visions become reality. Religion and spirituality are not tacked on, but part of everything from the healing herbs to the fish in the rivers to the ebb and flow of the river ice. The candle illuminating an icon in a plague room is real and powerful just like the wild holy fools that spend their days throwing rocks at invisible demons are taken seriously. Laurus brings the Russian Orthodox medieval world to life, not just through description but by giving us a glimpse into the intellectual and spiritual perspective of medieval Russian life but expertly illustrating its universal relevance to our world.

“Being a mosaic does not necessarily mean scattering into pieces, answered Elder Innokenty. It is only up close that each separate little stone seems not to be connected to the others. There is something more important in each of them, O Laurus: striving for the one who looks from afar. For the one who is capable of seizing all the small stones at once. It is he who gathers them with his gaze. That, O Laurus, is how it is in your life, too. You have dissolved yourself in God. You disrupted the unity of your life, renouncing your name and your very identity. But in the mosaic of your life there is also something that joins all these separate parts: it is an aspiration for Him. They will gather together again in Him.”

The author Vodolazkin is a Medieval scholar and a devoutly Orthodox and both influences come through in this novel, blending to become a modern masterpiece. I recommend reading the short interview with him over at The American Conservative, his insights on politics and religion in literature are interesting. I particularly enjoy the fact that his goal when starting Laurus was to write a “good” character, “In the Nineties, reality in Russia, and in Russian literature, was filled with a blackness that exhausted me. A few years ago, it occurred to me to write about something good. I tried to go against the mainstream.”

“So you say faith is not enough for you and you want knowledge, too. But knowledge does not involve spiritual effort; knowledge is obvious. Faith assumes effort. Knowledge is repose and faith is motion.”

Without a doubt my short review does not do the novel justice, all I can do is hope that my sincere recommendation will inspire you to pick up this outstanding book and that reading it will give you the same joy and satisfaction I got out of it.

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