In a publishing landscape marked by somewhat predictable and repetitive trends, a novel like this is, on the one hand, a risky bet that can surprise or mislead many readers, but, for the same reason, a pleasant surprise that, from the outset – and regardless of the final judgment it deserves – it is appreciated. Laura It is the second novel Yevgeny Vodolazkina contemporary Russian author (born in 1964 in kyiv, then the Soviet Union, now Ukraine), well known in his country with several awards and some precisely for this novel, published in 2012. Vodolazkin is also, according to what is read on the flap of the book, expert in the history and folklore of the medieval russia. The latter is perfectly perceptible in this novel, set in the late Middle Ages of his country. Specifically, in the second half of the fifteenth century, when the world is on the eve of expanding with the great ocean voyages and legends still run about that unknown world.
If we were looking at a movie, this would fit into what is lately called biopic, literally biographical film, loosely applying that meaning to fictional characters as well. There is no such term for narrative, but what Laura presents is, in a first approximation, the biographical journey of its protagonist, the Laurus of the title, although this character appears with three other names throughout the story. Laurus is the last of those names and, perhaps, the one that best defines it as it alludes to a healing plant that, being evergreen, heralds eternal life. And it is that Laurus –or Arsénij, as he is baptized and appears at the beginning of the story– is, more than a doctor, a healer. Someone gifted since childhood to make people’s lives easier. And time and spirituality, those two great issues that are condensed in the concept of eternal life, are the two main rails on which this complex novel runs, full of suggestions and ingredients.
The backbone of the story it tells Laura is the life of this healer, a kind of saint who fits into what the Russian Church called, especially in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, “mad for Christ”, genuinely Russian characters, whose radical passion for sacrifice, misunderstood and incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, it sometimes comes to be perceived more as humiliation and madness than as detachment. In Spain we have a precedent with which Laura may be related. Its about Nazarin Galdosian, it is not in vain that critics have related this novel to the reading that Don Benito Pérez Galdós made of Tolstói’s work.
The biography of Laura unfolds in a series of collateral issues that enrich and give a peculiar tone to the novel. This tone emerges from the mixture of mysticism, traditional story resources, biblical echoes and magical realism. In Laura there is, on the one hand, the dispossession, the self-denial of the protagonist, and on the other, snowfalls that recall the meteorological phenomena that devastated Macondo, apparitions of death, dead people who speak or have a conscience, levitations, a character who cries during seven days and seven nights or spend half a month in a row sleeping, a bread that does not diminish when eaten, and other wonderful phenomena such as a resurrection, tears that make plants sprout or fire that does not burn.
Interestingly, and this is an attraction of the novel, the foregoing coexists with a scrupulous realism in the description of some aspects of life at the time: the inns and the trickster innkeepers (predecessors of the Thénardiers of The Miserables), the caravans, ceremonies such as taking the priestly habit, recounted with all vividness and detail. This contrast between realism and fantasy is matched by a similar contrast between the archaic language of many passages and the occasional colloquial expressions – colleague, to have it raw, even tacos – that may recall the style of our Alvaro Pombo, also concerned about religious life in some of his books. There is no shortage of touches of humor, as in the case of the man who, unlike his neighbors, does not seek sexual vigor, since what seems difficult to him is precisely achieving the opposite.
The titles of the four blocks into which the volume is divided – the book of knowledge, the book of renunciation, the book of the path, the book of tranquility – can also give an idea of its content. In the third of them, centered on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the most agile of the set, the story becomes almost an adventure story. There is no lack of an echo of what today is called animalism, but which in the context of history would be Franciscanism, due to the presence of animals –a wolf, a bear– that approach man.
Finally, what characterizes this original novel are the numerous reflections that, along the narrative, it contains. Laura could be what used to be called a “idea novel». Around time and spirituality, the aforementioned two great pillars that support the story, it abounds in reflections and suggestions that enrich the text and make it remain and grow in the reader’s memory. As the translator, Rafael Guzmán, says in the prologue, the main philosophical idea of the book is that time has no borders. In other words, it is not that time does not exist, as one character suggests, but that it is an episode of eternity that should not be overestimated. “The material world is the only one that needs time,” says that character. “But the material world is also the only one in which it is possible to act,” replies the protagonist. Because Arsénij-Laurus, with his divestment and his renunciation of himself, does not stop acting and intervening in the world: to be alive is to be able to do good deeds.
There are still, with regard to time, suggestions about the identity between the end of personal life and the end of the world, or about the way in which the past and the people we knew then continue to accompany us. It is not surprising, given the type of novel that Laurus is, a consideration about faith and knowledge, about the effort that the first requires and the tranquility that the second supposes, and how the faith of the just is so strong that it becomes in knowledge.
Other issues raised throughout the story have to do with the bittersweet of life, in which there are farewells and encounters. Without forgetting the former, we must rejoice in the latter, it is said, rejoice in the good without forgetting the bad; and to know that the sweetness of the world eventually turns to salt and bitterness just as the sweet water of the river turns to the salt water of the sea. One character maintains that, except with tears, it is not possible to cleanse and purify the taint and filth of the soul, and that “in life there must be some kind of fulfillment.” Those ideas that, like aphorisms, run through it, enrich a well-nourished novel of stories and characters, which does not detract from the great Russian tradition, be they the masters of the 19th century or others of the 20th, such as Andrei Biely or Ribákov.