Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait)

The title Daniel Stein, Interpreter is loaded with meaning. The novel’s namesake and hero is a Polish Jew gifted with languages. He survived WWII by acting as an interpreter for the Germans, the Belorussians and Soviets. Each time the city of Emsk changed hands, so did Daniel. At times re-translating the same documents over again for each new occupier. It was through his position that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of men, women & children – both Jews and non-Jews.

After the war Daniel converted to Catholicism and immigrated to Israel as a monk in the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. There he built a sometimes controversial congregation that embraced both the Christian & Jewish faiths. He took on a new role as interpreter – elucidating church doctrine and dogma. He taught that Christianity is an extension of Judaism. He lobbied and eventually sued to gain Israeli citizenship as a Christian Jew.  His teachings, while not entirely unique (we’re told there were rabbis who felt the same), were revolutionary.

People wrote denunciations against him. I had one sad little paper here for a long time which Daniel brought. He was summoned one time by the abbot and given a notice to attend the Office of the Prime Minister. Daniel came and sowed it to us, wondering what it was all about. This was after his court case. All that fuss in the press seemed to have died down. I looked at the paper and the address there was not the Prime Minister’s Office at all but the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet. Something along the lines of your CIA. I told him not to go. He sat there, said nothing, scratching behind his ear. He did that when he was thinking.

“No,” he said. “I shall go. I’ve been dealing with these services the whole of my life. I worked in the police, and I was in the partisans. By the way, I have two medals, one with Lenin on it and one with Stalin. I even worked for the NKVD for a couple of months before I ran away.”

In case there’s any doubt – Daniel Stein, Interpreter is about religion.  As such the text sometimes takes dense, philosophical tangents.  I’m not particularly religious, yet I found the book fascinating.  It might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with either the Jewish or Christian faiths to understand all the nuances of the story being told.  I think other readers will shy away specifically because of the religious subject matter. They shouldn’t. Because it is an interesting, well-written and – though it might seem a contradiction –  accessible.  A story that is also about the difference a single person can make in the world by (forgive the cliché) doing what they believe is right.  In a way, Ulitskaya redeems both these religions by demonstrating in Brother Daniel what they might represent.

___________

Ludmila Ulitskaya is an award-winning (most recently France’s Simone de Beauvoir Prize in 2011) Russian author. She was nominated for the Man Booker International in 2009. She’ll be speaking at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in NYC. Daniel Stein, Interpreter celebrates the life of the real Brother Daniel Stein by piecing together a fictionalized history of letters, recorded interviews, diary entries and transcripts spanning a period from 1960 up to almost the present day.  She numbers and dates them (i.e.-the letters, interviews, etc.) like items in an auction catalog. She even inserts her own correspondence about the writing of the novel in a post-modern twist.

I am not a real writer and this book is not a novel but a collage.  I snip out pieces of my own life and of the lives of other people and glue together “without glue” (pause…) “a living tale from fragments of days.”

Ulitskaya’s prose is consistent and she establishes strong identities for each of her characters. Their voices remain interesting – though at times some of the female characters become a little homogeneous. Regardless, we get to see Brother Daniel’s life through multiple lenses.  As he sees himself – in unvarnished, practical, matter-of-fact terms.  And also a more complicated figure – as viewed by his friends, family, colleagues and the institutions whose lives he touched.  It is a life interpreted for the reader.

The plot and portrait are developed with subtlety, forming a story that has no arc other than what can be found in the life of this man.  Ludmila Ulitskaya accomplishes this – without emphasizing the emotional peaks or valleys.  She minimizes the drama, breaking Brother Daniel down to a series of anecdotes and burying the significant events amongst the trivialities of her characters’ daily lives.  This author chose to leave a good portion of the ‘boring bits’ in the book. The overall effect, once you realize what she is doing, is startling in its breadth and accomplishment.

Publisher:  Overlook Duckworth, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 1 59020 320 0

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