A History of the Island, by Eugene Vodolazkin

Eugene Vodolazkin’s Laurus sat on my shelf for a number of years after a friend gave it to me. During that time I loaned it out at least once, my neglect being no testament to my valuation of it. On the contrary, I suspected it of being highly affecting on account of both craftsmanship and realistic representations of its fifteenth-century protagonist. But the travails of even a fictional saint seemed too much to traverse during a stretch of life that encompassed (sequentially, thank goodness, not all at once) a mother-in-law with dementia, a worldwide pandemic, and a husband with cancer, not to mention a daughter in middle school.

At length, however, advance notice of the impending publication of Vodolazkin’s A History of the Island prompted me to pick up Laurus. While the 2023 book is not a sequel to Laurus, I wanted to be familiar with the author’s earlier work before taking on the new one.

I discovered that while Laurus does engage weighty themes, the author’s wit and the protagonist’s (often implausibly) transcendent state of mind prevent the latter’s trials from overburdening those of us who trudge vicariously alongside him. The setting is our world, but it’s a half-mythic world, where signs and wonders are commonplace. Surreal elements extract the action from the realm of the literal into a space where I, at least, could observe and reflect from a certain remove.

I ended up reading A History for our mother-daughter book when we were assigned to select a book with an unusual narrative style. A History qualifies on many levels. It reads like the history book it purports to be, but the narrative is interspersed with commentary by the centuries-old monarchs of said island.

The fictional location could represent, variously, Russia, one of its satellite states, or humanity at large. The history principally in view is the stretch from the Middle Ages to the present, as chronicled by the island’s monks. Their voices come to the fore or fade into the background, depending on the narrative style of each. The result at times calls into question the nature of historiography and often offers wry commentary on Western civilization and the fruit of “progress.”

Meanwhile, the long-lived monarchs offer a big-picture perspective on what has been and where it all is headed. The history and their commentary touch on such themes as education, commerce, revolution, colonialism (both governmental and socio-economic), civil war, evolution, science, faith, art—essentially anything that concerns humanity.

Along the way the monarchs’ interjections evolve into real-time accounts of the filming of a biopic. Invited by the French filmmaker to witness and consult on the work, they sojourn in France, while a publisher on the island is preparing a new edition of the History (which the reader bears in hand). The result is a reflection on art and history, as the monarchs observe and describe the filmmaker’s interpretation—and, on occasion, alteration—of scenes from their lives.

Vodolazkin’s wit, irony, and surrealism make this far more intriguing than your average textbook. At intervals he relates off-beat scenes with possibly the sole intention of making sure the reader is paying attention. As with Laurus, these overt devices didn’t so much draw me into the world of the story as cause me to regard it from a distance, pondering what the author is about and what he means by it. I imagine the author saying, “Is it possible you could be wrong? What if you looked at it this way?”

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