Readers who are short on time are often quick to ignore new novels in favor of recent nonfiction (small-talk-enabling) and classics (reliable). Laurus, the novel by Russian medievalist Eugene Vodolazkin, is a powerful reason to resist this temptation. It tells the story of a boy born in 1440 who is baptized as Arseny, loses his parents to the plague, and as an adolescent inherits his grandfather’s practice as herbalist and medicine man. As Arseny passes through life, changing names as he goes, he is variously a father, a penitent, a faith healer, a prophet, a holy fool, a pilgrim, and finally, a saint.
Colorful and earthy, this is no pious tale, yet it is suffused with a sense of the interwovenness of the invisible and the material worlds. Prayer, it becomes clear, is far more potent than Arseny’s medical arts; by the end of the book, he discards his herbs completely. Just as real is the continuing presence of those who have died among the living. It is Arseny’s desire to do penance on behalf of Ustina, the unmarried mother of his son who died in childbirth without the sacrament of confession, that impels him to a life of holiness and self-sacrifice.
Lisa C. Hayden’s translation from Russian, which reflects the original’s mix of colloquialisms and archaic language, is generally fluent and compelling. (One quibble: the pastiches of Chaucerian English can be irritatingly amateurish.) All in all, Laurus is one of those rare books that can help us live our lives with a greater degree of “assurance of things hoped for, and the certainty of things unseen.”