One of the things that I enjoy the most about the Edinburgh International Book Festival is that it can be used as quality control for my reading material. If Nick Barley and his team think that an author is good enough to be invited to appear in the Charlotte Square tent, that means that you should consider reading the same. It does not matter that you have never heard of the book, or even the author. The principle holds. And you are not likely to be disappointed. So that is how I came to hear of this book, and it is why I decided to read it.
It is not often that you come across novels about a mystic set in Mediaeval Russia, and certainly not one where the central themes of the story are unrequited love and a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the company of an Italian scholar. But that is what you have got here in this tale of how the young boy Arseny becomes the monk Laurus, and of the people that he meets on his journey to and from Jerusalem who help to determine his spiritual progress.
I know nothing about Mediaeval Russia, but that is no hindrance in reading this book. Vodolazkin takes great care in making sure that his readers understand the context in which the story is set. He explains what is necessary for the story of the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was central to Russian culture at the time, and which still has an enormous influence on the thinking of the Russian people. He shows the dangerous effects of the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. He introduces us to a world of visionaries, of mysticism, of the plague, of the difficulties and dangers of travelling and of the conflict between the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
He also makes us think about the ageing process, the confusion of memories, the concepts of time, of the finite and the infinite, of the present and the eternal. The scope of this book is enormous, in the best traditions of the Great Russian novels. This is a book that requires you to stop and think, even to go back a few pages to make sure that you have understood it properly. It is well worth the effort.
There is one thing that has to be mentioned – the spellings. Because the book was written in Russian, the author was able to segue into mediaeval Russian without causing his reader too much difficulty. That option is not open to the translator as mediaeval English would be incomprehensible to the vast majority of modern readers. So she has opted for using the spelling of Chaucer and Langland, rather than the actual words. I am not sure about this. It certainly helps identify the speech rhythms of the characters, but it does look a little odd on the page. It is however a small price to pay to achieve that poetry of language that is a hallmark of the book.
I am really grateful to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for drawing this book to my attention. If Eugene Vodolazkin had not been invited to speak by Nick Barley and his team, I would not have read this book. I would have been the poorer for that.