A religious contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction

Reviewed by Anna Porter
Globe and Mail, July 27, 2011

Part 1: Review

It’s a strange way to tell a story. Daniel Stein: Interpreter is a patchwork of letters, diaries, official notes, reports and recorded speeches that seem to both hide and explore the extraordinary tale of Daniel, formerly Dieter Stein, the interpreter of the title. He does emerge in the end, a redemptive, compassionate person with an unshakable resolve to save people from destruction – whether it’s brought upon them by the unimaginable cruelties of the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation or the individual cruelties of everyday lives.

Born a Polish Jew, Stein survived the Germans and the Soviets by becoming an interpreter seemingly serving both, but in reality serving only his own desire to do good. He was baptized a Christian by nuns who hid him from the Nazis. He became a Carmelite monk and decided to work for his God in, of all places, Israel, where Christianity began with the Jewish Jesus, his Jewish relatives and first followers. He is an unusual monk for the Catholic Church (even for the Polish Pope) and for the Israelis who don’t accept him as a Jew and are suspicious of his conducting mass in Hebrew.

Throughout his life, his benevolent influence serves the many characters whose voices we hear while reading this extraordinary book. He becomes an interpreter of beliefs and emotions, of ancient religions and dogmatic convictions, of human relationships and even the memories that divide Arabs and Jews in everybody’s Holy Land.

The astonishing story of Brother Daniel is based on the life of Oswald Rufenstein, a Jewish monk, whom Ludmila Ulitskaya met in 1992. Her own struggles with the book, recorded in her letters, form part of the novel and allow an unusually intimate glance into the challenges of writing a book of many narratives.

Part 2: Interview with Ludmila Ulitskaya

She is a small woman with a soft voice and short-cropped grey-white hair. Her high, arched eyebrows and gentle smile lend her a pleasantly surprised air, even when she is uninterested in a question she is preparing to answer. At 67, she has become one of Russia’s most popular and least compromising writers. Yet her stories are often described as depressing and difficult, her writing about sex too graphic, her insistence on stylistic innovation isolating, and her talk of the puerility of the Russian leadership downright dangerous. This is a country where about 200 journalists have been killed in the past 10 years.

Her support for imprisoned Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky (she published their correspondence) would not have won her friends among President Vladimir Putin’s many supporters. Nor has her insistence that she is not afraid of them.

Besides, she tells me, it would be pointless to be afraid. “I am a Russian writer. This is my native country. This is the language I speak and write. So, there is nowhere for me to hide.” She says she has never suffered either as a Jew in a country where there have been bouts of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, or as an outspoken critic of the government. “I have always been protected by my friends.”

She says she often travels to be able to snatch solitude from a busy life – Germany, France, the United States, Israel – but it is not to escape danger. “My fame,” she says, “hinders my life.”

She has won the Medici Prize for foreign fiction and the Russian Booker. Her work has been translated into 25 languages. Her most recent book, Daniel Stein: Interpreter, has sold a million copies in Russia alone.