Ludmila Ulitskaya at Jewish Book Week

Picture of Ludmila Ulitskaya

Picture of Brian Klug

A show of hands revealed that rather few of the audience understood Russian and even fewer had read Daniel Stein, Interpreter, which she had come to talk about.  Presumably they were interested in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

When Brian Klug asked whether she had expected such a strong reaction to the book, Ulitskaya replied that she had expected to be read by 200 people, all of them her friends.  But it turned out the problem was hanging in the air; I think she meant by this exactly the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.  I’m not sure she ever answered the question about why she had written a novel about a non-fictional character; rather she said something about how it had happened.  It had ended up with her not being able to say which of the documents in her book she had found and which she had made up.  There were now tours in Haifa to explore the sites in her book; one of the churches she had made up, so another had been appointed in its place.

She described how she had met the historical Daniel (Oswald) Rufeisen only once, at a time she was hemmed in with saucy doubts and fears.  the fact that such a man could say I do not know this or I do not understand that had made her feel a lot better.  (Later on she described him as a saint.)

On the religious content of her book, she seemed to be completely behind the ideas she ascribed to her Brother Daniel:  right action more important than right belief  (or right praise); Jesus as a 100% Jew; Judaism as something Christianity could not be properly itself without accepting.

She felt that there had been some progress since the death of Brother Daniel; Christian churches held ecumenical services and the Pope had even visited a synagogue (in New York).  But her book would never be translated into Hebrew–it would cause an enormous scandal.

Brian Klug was keen on the idea of Daniel Stein the interpreter as being a symbolic figure at the junction of two or many worlds (rather like Jesus between earth and heaven).  That didn’t go down especially well, at least in part because interpreter only means oral translator and not explainer in Russian.   But I thought the idea that the book’s form as a collage of diverse documents and narratives forced readers to become their own Daniel Stein and make their way between clashing worlds was a lot more promising.

There were some rather confused questions at the end, one of which led to Ulitskaya indignantly denying this was her first book to be translated into English–but she felt it had been received a lot more enthusiastically in Europe than in the English-speaking world.

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