With Laurus I have at last found one of those rare books, the kind that goes on the shelf of wonder. It is surely no less than one of the world’s few books of wonder.
Set in Medieval Russia, the story is a vision of timeless Russia, of Russia in which the temporal, earthly and mortal have been joined by Orthodox Christianity to that which is not. Eternal, celestial and immortal, in short, the realm of wonder breathes calm and purpose into the tragic events of the novel, overwhelming the child’s question ‘why’ in the childhood, youth, manhood, and old age of Arseny, who is Ustin, Amvrosy, and at last Laurus. There is no understanding the answer without living it, without being connected to that which came before and that which comes after, and with that in which there is no becoming.
There are symbols in this book like the book of the Revelations, there is learning in it like the work of Umberto Eco, and there is pathos in it such as Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner exhibited. This pathos is not senselessly, and therefore sensefully or meaningfully presented. Though I have not yet re-read the book, I know it will bear up. I am sure of it. On the whole, it is probably worth learning Russian for, since what I have is an English translation of the 2012 Russian original. It is timely, also, and here you can find the author’s explanation of what he was aiming for in terms of our times.
You can take Rod Dreher’s word on the novel, if he means anything to you. He is right to bring up the term magical realism, and is right to point out that it is more than magical realism. Magical realism is about the modern predilection for an author’s disappearance as a narrator. It shows the impossibility of such a thing. Vodolazkin uses it to do more, but he uses it at least to do this, and this strengthens his argument.
It is a book about the need for the permanent things, and a book that shows life in relation to the permanent things. In a way, it is an apology of a despised way of life, medieval life, holding back none of the modern horror for the complete absence of prosperity and comfort, but putting it into the context of a better prosperity and consolation.
And it is a book of rich characterization. There is no character who, however minor, is not treated with a deft touch: a brief description, a snatch of dialogue, a concluding observation. Vodolazkin’s concern is humane, and therefore attentive to the human beings, all the human beings, under the judgment of the premise of his tale.