Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin

Laurus cover imageSummary: A second reading of this wonderful modern novel about a 15th century Russian healer.

Like the last reading, I am still unsure how to describe the book and talk about it. So if you do not want any spoilers, read my first post. But this time, I am going to give some spoilers because they matter to the discussion. 

This novel is about Arseny in four stages of life. His name changes in each stage, and the last name, Laurus, becomes the book’s title. If there is a central theme, it is the changes of life and how those changes cannot be skipped or circumvented. At the same time, more in this reading than the last, I wonder if there could have been alternate means of healing and wholeness. Arseny is the grandson of a healer and holy man. As a young child, he plays with his grandfather and absorbs the knowledge of medicine and healing methods available in the 14th century. Eventually, his parents die of the plague, and his grandfather more directly teaches him healing skills. When his grandfather dies, and he is left alone, the community essentially treats him as a stand-in for his grandfather and not his own person. 

Not too long after his grandfather dies, an orphaned teen girl, Ustina, finds her way to Arseny, and he nurses her back to health. In part because of their loneliness, they bond and become that family for one another. But Arseny hides her from the community. He does not want to share her. He is afraid that she will be taken from him, which includes preventing her from being baptized and partaking in communion because he is afraid of the implications of the child they conceived. He tells himself that once the child is born, no one can separate them. His pride prevents him from seeking out the midwife, even though he has never delivered a child. And while he does love her, his love is selfish. Depending on what version of the book summary you read, you may know that she and the baby die in childbirth. Because he prevented her from being baptized, she cannot be buried in the consecrated cemetery. 

The rest of the book is about his life, but that life is never alone. From that point until his death, his life is primarily concerned with living a life that can be for Ustina and his unnamed child. At the death of his wife and child, he feels like he must leave his home, and in the next phase of his life, he intentionally seeks out plague victims to do what he can. With care, many more survive than would have without his care. When he saves a local noble’s wife and daughter, he is pressed into service but allowed to serve all in that city. Here, he falls in love, and she with him, one of the residents that he heals. A widowed woman and her son could have become the “replacement” to the family that he lost, but he feels that that would violate the penance that he put upon himself. So he abandons another family situation and escapes out of the city in the middle of the night. 

An angel facilitates the escape. He eventually realized that this angel was a thief and that the thief thought he was getting his partner out of the city, but the darkness obscured the identity of both of them. Finally, the abandoned partner catches up, kills the one who helped Arseny, and leaves Arseny for dead. While it was a severe head wound, it did not kill him. But due to injury and trauma, Arseny spends the next 14 years homeless and wandering. Most of the time, in a single city, living in a cemetery attached to a convent and acting as a Holy Fool. There are other Holy Fools in the city, some that speak and call people to repentance, but Arseny is mute mainly the entire time. 

Nevertheless, his healing gifts are still present, and he does heal occasionally and serve those around him in some ways. For example, during a horrible winter, Arseny wanders the city finding people lost in the snow and guiding them to safety. A vision of Christ saves Arseny from dying of cold and heals his mind to regain his function. 

With a third (physically healed) identity, Arseny resumes his healing, particularly of plague victims. During a respite of the plague, the mayor of a Russian city commissions Arseny and an Italian scholar to visit Jerusalem to pray for his daughter who died. That visit takes Arseny throughout Europe and to Jerusalem and again brings tragedy. When Arseny returns, he again takes up his work with plague victims, but he is now an old man.

Throughout the book, there is evidence of the incongruence of time. The Italian sees visions of the future. And the author both intentionally includes anachronisms and what is translated in English as old English spellings and words. I exclusively read this in print during this reading, and there were far more sections of old English than what I realized when I primarily listened to the audiobook on the first reading. The audiobook also did not include a translator’s introduction, which I think helped show the author’s intent. 

The final section of the book is about Arseny joining the local monastery, the same one which his healer’s cabin was in the shadow of as he was growing up and in whose cemetery his grandfather was buried. It is here that healing starts to happen for Arseny’s soul. Laurus is not a didactic or moralistic book, but I think this passage shows the healing well. 

“The tears cleansed his soul as well as his face. For the first time in his life, Amvrosy felt his soul was finding peace…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 those separate parts: it is an aspiration for Him. They will gather together again in Him.”

I won’t spoil the whole book, but the book ends with more reflection on how time is not particularly linear. In many ways, I enjoyed the book more because I knew what was mainly going to happen, and I enjoyed the themes of the book and the story. But I also wonder at some f the choices. Our hurts impact not just us but also those around us. God can empower broken people and people who are not fully healed of their pain and trauma, just as he can empower those who have not been traumatized. I do not think Laurus idealizes pain, but I do think that some of those that read it may incorrectly see that as a takeaway from the book. 

I think there is something to the potential for wisdom and virtue in older age that would be harder to achieve in younger people. It is not that with age comes maturity and wisdom, but age can be a means to obtain wisdom and maturity even if it is not enough on its own. 

Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook 

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