Posts Tagged ‘Ludmila Ulitskaya’

Ludmila Ulitskaya at Jewish Book Week

February 26, 2012

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.

Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Interpreter)

December 10, 2011


This is a good book.  It is also not clear that it should ever have been written.

The book revolves around the life of Daniel Stein, a young Polish Jew in pre-WWII Poland.  At the time of the German invasion he succeeds in fleeing Eastwards.  He manages to pass himself off as a Pole of German ancestry and finds himself employed as an interpreter, first of all by the Belorussian police collaborating with the German occupation, where he tries to prevent the local inhabitants from perishing just because they do not understand what it is they are meant to do.  Then he is recruited by the Gestapo and helps a part of  the local ghetto escape their planned annihilation.

After being found out, he is concealed in a convent where he ends up by converting to Catholicism.  After the War, he is for a time a monk in Poland before emigrating to Israel where he establishes a church (of Elijah by the Spring) where he conducts services in Hebrew.  While not enjoying the favour of church authorities, he gathers some followers around himself and finances his activities by doing guided tours around Israel.

The narrative is carried on in more-than-epistolary or semi-documentary style by means of extracts from letters, official reports, newspapers, cassettes sent in place of letters, but there is no effort to reproduce the appearance of these sources.  It includes within itself escapees from the ghetto, Daniel’s family, a secret nun in Lithuania, her devilish temptations and fictive husband, Pope John Paul II, a repentant German girl who comes to aid Daniel Stein and carries on a twenty year affair with the gardener Musa.  It also includes letters from Ulitskaya to her pal saying how difficult writing the book is.

Ludmila Ulitskaya can be an extremely artless writer, but she has the Thing, the ability to turn human experience into black-and-white patterns on the page and make it pass like a virus into the nerves of her readers.  Especially as regards families, which I think is here as ever her main theme.  I think her idea is that the family is the main thing, to keep it going and add to it, and the church is the same kind of thing but not as good.  Daniel Stein certainly expounds the family-is-good motto in unplanned pregnancy and similar cases.

The character of Daniel Stein is closely modelled on Oswald (Daniel) Rufeisen, and it seems as if Ulitskaya started off with the idea of writing a factual book about Rufeisen and then got drawn into a novel instead.  I’m not sure that was a good decision, but the novel is a good one and well worth reading.

There is now an English translation.  Ludmila Ulitskaya will be in London in February to talk about the book (details here).  And a short account of her session here.