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Eugene Vodolazkin
Oneworld Publications, 2015
352 pp., 24.99

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Betty Smartt Carter

The Upward Spiral

A Russian monk's quest.

In a late scene from Eugene Vodolazkin's novel Laurus, the newly shorn monk Amvrosy converses with Elder Innokenty about the nature of time. The elder disappears and reappears from the opposite side of the monastery wall as he discusses a parallel concept from geometry:

I will liken the motion of time to a spiral. This involves repetition but on some new, higher level. Or, if you like, the experience of something new but not from a clean slate. With the memory of what was experienced previously … .
And you, O elder, are making circles, Amvrosy told him
No, this is already the spiral. I am walking as before, along with the swirl of leaves but—do take note—O Amvrosy—the sun came out and I am already a little different. I feel as if I am even taking flight, ever so slightly. (Elder Innokenty broke free of the ground and slowly floated past Amvrosy.) Though not very high, of course.
Oh no, that's fine, Amvrosy nodded. The main thing is that your explanations are straightforward.

Any meeting of the mundane and mystical is bound to produce a few laughs. But even the comedy in Laurus has a holy freshness to it, like tripping in a baptismal pool. The novel begins with the birth of a Russian boy on the feast day of Arsenius the Great in "the 6948th year since the creation of the World," or around AD 1440. Christened Arseny, he goes to live with his grandfather Christopher in the countryside when the plague appears in his hometown. From Christopher, Arseny learns to tend the sick and heal with herbs. While still young, he makes wings from peacock feathers and tries to reach heaven from the top of the roof (he wants to meet his dead grandmother). Though effect doesn't always follow cause in this novel, it does here, and Arseny ends up with a broken foot. But the flight is a picture in miniature of the rest of his earthly life; love will propel him to do great deeds among the living, even as guilt pulls him down into a life of self-sacrifice and fearlessness of death—a surrender of worldly hopes that frees him to rise again.

The guilt arrives early in the narrative. After losing his parents and then Christopher, Arseny finds himself alone in the world. He takes up his grandfather's work as a healer, and quickly achieves local fame for his almost miraculous touch. But when a young woman named Ustina arrives needing care, Arseny falls into a kind of worshipful love for her. Ustina becomes pregnant and begs for a midwife, but Arseny refuses, fearing that the community will separate them if her existence becomes known. Ustina asks for baptism, but he insists on waiting till after the child's birth. Arseny's sinful possessiveness—his refusal to share Ustina with God or anyone else—leads to the thing he fears most.

"I will not pity you," Elder Nikandr tells the grieving boy. "You are to blame for her bodily death. You are also to blame that her soul may perish."

The elder advises Arseny to give Ustina his own life from now on—ultimately to do the good deeds she would have done on earth if she had lived. "You have a difficult journey, for the story of your love is only beginning. Everything, O Arseny, will now depend on the strength of your love. And, of course, on the strength of your prayers, too."

Arseny's journey takes him away from Rukina Province to places in Russia where the plague rages and terrified neighbors lock themselves away from the dying. He crosses rivers of ice and enters houses of poverty and devastation. Launching himself fearlessly into acts of self-sacrifice, he endures hunger, cold, mockery, and three beatings that take him to the brink of death. Later, he lives for a time in the city of Pskov as "Ustin," holy fool, only to lay aside the burden of foolishness and become a healer again.

Through it all, Arseny thinks little of his own sufferings, but by the last portion of the novel, his labors on behalf of Ustina have shaped him into someone altogether different from the despairing boy who began the journey. When he finally enters Kirillov monastery as "Amvrosy," he has traveled from Rus (the edge of the known world) to Jerusalem and back; he has also circled through time, trampling over the detritus of future centuries, peering into things to come and things that remain only possibilities. His final redemption will occur when he returns home as "Laurus" and revisits the moment of his sin, but now as a holy man on the brink of eternity.

This is a novel that glitters with treasures of history and myth: the archetypal taming of a pet wolf, a perilous journey through the Alps, a ride on the monstrous back of a storm at sea, an attack in the desert by Mamluk thieves. And it's a philosophically ambitious work: in giving Arseny (and his companion Ambrogio) the ability to see beyond the present, Vodolazkin explores questions of determinism and free will. He allows Arseny to glimpse a possible future in order to change it and even, on occasion, redeem it. Vodolazkin pictures human life as Elder Innokenty's upward spiral rather than a progressing line or an endlessly repeating circle, and asks us to look at our own lives as a sort of pilgrimage, in which we revisit the same places—still ourselves and yet as new people, only held in our identities over time by the love that binds us to others and by God.

All of which sounds like heady stuff. But Laurus, more than any novel I've read recently, asks for the heart as well as the head of the reader. The directness of the writing, the profundity of the questions, the iconic scenes (literally) that reveal a divine presence suffering along with the world all unite to ask the reader, Will you listen to the story of this sinning saint with your whole being? Will you be changed by it?

We often overestimate the difference between medieval and modern thinking. Like most of us, 15th-century people drew reasonable conclusions from the information they had—which was admittedly less reliable than our own in some respects. In a conversation among Arseny's traveling companions, for instance, the merchant Vladislav explains Poland:

There are people with small stomachs and small mouths: they do not eat meat, they only boil it. After boiling up the meat, they lie down on the pot, soak up the steam, and sustain themselves with only that.
And what? marveled the guard Vlasy. Do they not eat anything at all?
If they eat, it is not much at all, the merchant said modestly.

Undoubtedly, we know more about Poland these days—not to mention the digestive tract. But those are passing things (so to speak). Many of us have lost the ability to see the reflection of God looking back at us from the created world, from in and beyond the river of time. For Arseny, the world itself is only an icon—a sign. He sets out on a quest for his lover's redemption, but realizes by the end of it that his true destination lies in God:

I want only to know the general direction of the journey, said Arseny. The part that concerns me and Ustina.
But is not Christ a general direction? said the elder. What other direction do you seek? And how do you even understand the journey anyway? As the vast expanses you left behind? … [D]o not be enamored of excessive horizontal motion.
Then what should I be enamored of?
Vertical motion, answered the elder, pointing above.

Betty Smartt Carter writes fiction and teaches Latin in Alabma.

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