Review: DANIEL STEIN, INTERPRETER, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

 Daniel Stein, Interpreter, by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Published 2012 by Overlook.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is a "novel in documents," a kind of epistolary fictional meditation on the life of a Polish Jew named Daniel Stein who survives the Holocaust and World War 2 by, among other things, translating for the Gestapo. Then during the war he saves the lives of 300 Jews during a raid and eventually becomes a Catholic priest and moves to Israel. Daniel's story is based on that of a real man, Oswald Rufeisen, and while the character Daniel is based on him, Daniel is not he himself. Award-winning Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya tells Daniel's story through letters, diaries and official documents and thus the story shifts both in time and perspective. Over the course of the novel connections form between the characters, who seem disparate and diverse at first but who are all connected through a small Polish community torn apart by murder.

The book starts with Ewa Manukyan, a Polish woman searching for information on her father. Her mother Rita is a difficult, unlikeable woman, aging and needy, who had in her youth a reputation as a ferocious soldier. Ewa cannot relate to her at all, and she begins a friendship with Esther Gantman, a wealthy exile living in Boston who, together with her late husband, worked in the Polish ghetto of Emsk during the war. Ewa and Esther's story connects with others, who then connect with Daniel Stein, the enigmatic man at the center of this very complex story.

Brother Daniel's story starts as one of shifting identity. He hides in plain sight by pretending to be Polish; a gifted linguist, he speaks German and Polish fluently and is an accomplished horseman. He works for the Gestapo but tries to undermine them at the same time; he finds both danger and friendship in this life, and has to make heartbreaking choices with consequences that will haunt him for the rest of his life. After the war he establishes a church in Israel that attempts to return to a time before Christianity split from its Jewish founders and then with itself.

In doing so, he steps into the quagmire of Israel's many religious sects and their zealots. He runs afoul of the Catholic Church with some unorthodox preaching and he runs afoul of the state of Israel by asking for Israeli citizenship as a returned Jew. But he has friends. His followers love him; his assistant Hilda, a German woman who has made a home for herself in the desert, would, it seems, follow him to the ends of the earth but her love for him isn't romantic. That she shares with Musa, an Arab Christian who also assists Brother Daniel's ministry. And Brother Daniel has a powerful friend in his boyhood acquaintance Karol, who ascends to the highest office the Church has to offer. Over the years his life intersects with many lives, and Ulitskaya tells their stories alongside his; they embellish each other and create a detailed panorama of life during and after the war.

I loved this book, and so did many, but it has been criticized, too. Some have said that Daniel is a distant figure, that we never get close to him, and because this is an essentially epistolary novel we see Daniel either through the eyes of others as mediated by whatever form Ulitskaya is using, or through his own public statements, so I think that's a valid observation but it doesn't limit the book's power for me. I think she means to hold him at a distance, to make him unknowable even as she meditates on him. The book has also received criticism for its negative portrayal of life in Israel in the years following World War 2- the inflexibility of its government and the fractiousness of its people. I would agree that she does not portray Israel as a paradise but I'm not sure that's a valid critique of the novel as such.

So yeah, I loved it. Reading Ulitskaya is always a treat and unfortunately only four of her many books are available in English. I've read two others and I have the fourth on the shelf. I almost don't want to read it right away because then I'm all out! I loved this book for its characters and the way Ulitskaya unwinds their relationships, and I loved the way they evolve and grow. The characters have distinct voices, problems, perspectives and limitations; Daniel himself lurks in every story even when he's not mentioned explicitly. Ulitskaya uses these other people as lenses through which to see and understand him, to work out what made him tick and how he became this strange and unusual person. And I drank in every word. It's very character-driven as you might guess, very emotional too. Ulitskaya deals with a lot of heavy issues that will raise strong emotions in many readers. As a Catholic with a Pope who seems to value compassion as highly as dogma, it was fascinating to read about a priest similarly inclined, set at a time when religious movements were actively staking claim to land and followers based on dogma. And I want to learn more about Rufeisen, the man behind the story. And I want to read more Ulitskaya. And that's saying something!

A serious and moving literary novel, Daniel Stein is definitely one of my favorites of 2013.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

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