I picked up this book knowing almost nothing about it, except that it was the monthly choice of one of my book clubs. I didn’t even read the blurb. I read a lot of Russian literature when I was 18-19, when it suited the gloom of adolescence (and when its availability on Project Gutenberg suited the empty bank account of adolescence), and I figured that Laurus would likely treat me to more of the same edge and moral ambiguity I recall from that period.
Instead, this book beautifully captures an entirely different side of the soul of Russia. Arseny, whom we will also know as Laurus and Amvrosy among his many other names, lives in a time and place where the worldview and moral code are as alien from my own as any fantasy culture, but his gentle soul reaches across the ages to move me anyway. His is a story of redemption, in which he never shies from or makes excuses for what he did wrong, but carries his burden until it drowns out the world. There is a terrific sense of disembodiment in the prose, a space between the reader and Arseny’s world just as there is a growing space between the world and Arseny. It felt sanctified, even to a reader who does not share his religion or anything resembling it.
In some ways, I am a poor choice of audience for this book, as it’s a clear homage to the hagiographies of Christian saints, and I am a Buddhist whose limited interest in Christian sainthood and mythology is purely academic. I did struggle in places with the matter-of-fact way in which the supposedly divine or demonic is presented, and I found that treating much of it as the potential result of a traumatic brain injury — something which, along with untreated mental illness, I consider a likely candidate for the historical phenomenon of ‘holy fools’ anyway — aided in my suspension of disbelief, though it lent a mournful feeling to passages of the book that I think were more humorous for other readers. Oddly, the more I treated the mysticism as ambiguous, the more I was able to accept it as mysticism.
The most compelling part of the story for me was its temporal shenanigans. From the very beginning it’s unrooted in time, from little anachronisms like plastic bottles in the snow to styles of speech that vary from Middle English to ‘well, like, you know’ 21st century slang. Later on it starts to incorporate flashes of other lives from other times altogether, some peripherally related down the ages to the lives of Arseny and his companions, some just glimpses across the thin fabric of time to the same space. By the end of the novel, concepts like before and after have almost ceased to matter. Time is just an illusion we use to make an overwhelming amount of information possible to process, and in letting it go, we get back all of the things time has stolen. I think this is the most powerful aspect of Laurus for me, the fact that something which is incredibly congruent to my worldview as a Buddhist comes from a portrayal of a medieval morality so foreign to my own. A common thread of humanity.
Laurus won at least one award for its English translation and although I cannot compare it to the Russian original, I feel that award was well-deserved. Not only is the liquid and ethereal prose a large contributing factor to the overall mood, but the varied use of English from different eras is a very clever way to reproduce the intent of the original Russian anachronisms. I’m not as good as I should be about paying attention to the names and pedigrees of translators, but Lisa Hayden will be joining Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky on the list of people bringing Russian literature to an English-speaking audience whose translations will be an auto-buy for me.
I’m actually immersed in Biblical studies at the moment as background for part of a course on the history of world literature, and it’s fascinating to me that I am more enraptured and more moved by this story of a saint who never existed than I have so far been by any of the ones who supposedly did.