Russian saga with spirits (on Daniel Stein, Interpreter) - Independent, 09/09/2011


Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya, trans. Arch Tait

Varieties of religious experience is Ludmila Ulitskaya's theme in Daniel Stein, Interpreter, in which the Russian writer tells the story of a man who devotes himself to God after surviving the horrors of Nazism. The hero is a Polish Jew who comes of age at the beginning of the Second World War, manages to hide his origins and, working as an interpreter for the Gestapo, saves many lives by risking his own.

Stein sees his fate as a miracle granted by God and decides to repay his debt. Having converted to Catholicism after the war, he founds a Christian community in the Promised Land, where he preaches in Hebrew. The plot is based on the story of a real person whom the author admired.

Stein is an interpreter in a wide sense ; his mission is to enable people to communicate with their spiritual side. According to him, there is no need to look for the Lord in books and rituals: "You can meet Him anywhere... in the liturgy, on a river bank, in a hospital, or in a cowshed. The closest place to find Him, though, is in your soul".

The book "is not a novel, but a collage" of letters, diaries, secret reports, transcripts and other documents, all designed to draw the portrait of the protagonist, to explain "why he was as he was". Real people and their accounts combine with fictional, each section finishing with the author's letter to her friend. In one, she confesses: "the whole vast amount of material crowds in on me" – and the reader often feels the same way. The number of sources is overwhelming.

The multi-voiced narrative works on the whole, and some of the accounts are worth a separate book. The story of a German woman who dedicates her life to working for the Israeli state to atone for the sins of her nation is one such example. The protagonist's brother, ghetto survivors, priests and converts: all are here for a reason. If only they talked more about Stein and less about themselves, or told us something more urgent than their family problems and love dilemmas. Phrases like "only Grisha was able to warm me up, using a tried and trusted method" remind you of the propensity of Ulitskaya's heroines for girly talk, which seems even less justified here than in her other books.

"I hate the Jewish Question!" the author exclaims, making you wonder what exactly she means. Writing about the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel is no easy task, and Ulitskaya does it because she cannot help it. Stein becomes an Israeli citizen, but is not allowed to put "Jew" in the box that reads "Ethnicity". The very existence of the latter proves that the questions asked in the novel are timely.

Despite all its shortcomings, this is an important and serious book that deals with such themes as love and duty, identity and conscience, religion and xenophobia. On its release in Russia in 2006, it caused heated debates. Orthodox Christians labelled it "a black hole of atheism", anti-Semites resorted to their usual bigotry, and Zionists tut-tutted at the criticism of Israel.

Daniel Stein "raised a heap of unresolved, highly inconvenient issues... the value of a life turned into mush beneath one's feet; the freedom which few people want; God for whom there is ever less room in our life". This is what the novel did, prompting people to voice their views on problems often swept under the carpet. For a country where you also had an "Ethnicity" box in your passport until recently, it is an achievement in itself.

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