Praising Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novel Daniel Stein, Translator

Tatiana Shabaeva focuses on Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novel Daniel Stein, Translator, winner of Russia’s Best Book of 2007 award

This is a great book, read it,” said my friend, a Second World War veteran, translator, poet, atheist, and respected sage. I needed no better recommendation to dive into Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s novel Daniel Stein, Translator, winner of Russia’s Best Book of 2007 award.

It’s 1941. In a small town in western Ukraine, Nazi invaders drive a crowd of Jews into a square between an Orthodox church and a Catholic cathedral where 1,500 people then die in a bloodbath. This is daily reality as Eastern Europe burns, moral certitudes crumble, and cruelty and treachery become mere tools for survival.

Daniel Stein, a young Jewish man, narrowly escapes death. Using his fluent knowledge of German, Polish and Belorussian he masquerades as a Pole and becomes a translator for the Belorussian police, the German Gestapo and, later, the Soviet NKVD. Wherever he is, Stein has only one option: to save his fellow man. He goes on to preserve the lives of hundreds of Jews by tipping them off to a raid. Eventually, hidden by Catholic nuns, he converts to Catholicism and becomes a priest.

Many years later, Stein realises his long-cherished dream and travels to Israel. Yet a huge disappointment awaits the priest in the Holy Land: local authorities grant him Israeli citizenship but refuse to acknowledge his Jewish origin. And he understands that although the war is long over, the schism in people’s minds has not yet been overcome. Here, Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity, Catholics and Orthodox believers, Arab Muslims and Christian Arabs do not understand and often hate each other, allowing mutual hostility to poison their lives. But still Father Stein nurtures a dream to visit the age when Christianity and Judaism were united.

It is both remarkable and wonderful that Ulitskaya did not invent her protagonist: Stein is based on Daniel Rufeisen, a Catholic monk, missionary and translator, and key events described in the novel are based on fact. The intricate network of lives around him is woven in such an artful manner that reality and fiction are barely distinguishable. In low, quiet voices, people of different nationalities narrate their stories through the novel’s collage of fragments taken from diaries, letters, intimate conversations and newspaper reports. The unfolding drama often seems unrealistic to us from our modern perspective. But, as the author said herself: “I could not have invented all that.”

The novel was favourably received in Russia – except by the Orthodox Church, where commentators felt obliged to find and expose Father Stein’s theological errors. It may not be much in demand as a catechism, but the main idea goes right to the heart: God is Mercy. And, though it is due for release in English shortly, the language of Mercy really needs no translation.

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