Ludmila Ultiskaya, Daniel Stein, Interpreter
August 31, 2014 § Leave a comment
4. January 1946, Wroclaw
LETTER FROM EFRAIM CWYK TO AVIDOR STEIN
Did you know I managed to find Dieter back in August last year? He is alive, but stuck in a monastery! When I heard he had become a monk I could not believe it. We were in Akiva together, we were Zionists, we were going to go to Israel, and suddenly this! A monk! After the war there are not that many of us still around. He is one of the lucky few, and all just to become a monk? When someone said he was in Kraków I went straight there. I was sure, and I still haven’t changed my mind completely, he must have been tricked. To tell the truth, I took a pistol along just in case. I captured a good Walther a while back. (p. 36)
Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2006 novel, translated ably by Arch Tait in 2011 as Daniel Stein, Interpreter, is not a true novel in the sense of a unified narrative. Instead, it is an epistolary narrative, told through dozens of real and fictitious letters that narrate the life and beliefs of an extraordinary man, Oswald Rufeisen, the model for the titular Daniel Stein. In these various letters, excerpts of speeches and even brochures, the broad parameters of his life and his conversion from Judaism to becoming a controversial Barefoot Carmelite monk living in Israel after the Holocaust are established. It is a challenging work, one that can excite and frustrate even the most curious and cautious readers.
Daniel Stein, Interpreter is divided into five parts, yet these are not as much chronological divisions as they are thematic ones. In them, real and fictitious characters based on actual people narrate in their letters to others (which in turn engender other conversations with still other readers, until each section concludes with a letter written by the author herself) their experiences in the past war, the Holocaust, their issues and crises of faith, and, sometimes in passing, their memories of this Jewish boy, Dieter/Daniel, who became a monk and who tried to re-create the Jewish Christianity of St. James of Jerusalem. It is a fascinating tale, but one that requires quite a bit of parsing as to determine what is being said and what is being withheld.
Daniel’s character is one of the few things that are established solidly. He is a smart, sensitive soul, yet one who manages to act as a mediator between intransigent groups. He manages to survive the Holocaust by convincing the local Gestapo leaders that he is a Pole who is fluent in German and Yiddish and he uses this position of trust to shield over 300 refugees who have fled from their local ghetto to the surrounding forest, where they somehow manage to survive. This ability to communicate across linguistic, cultural, and religious divides serves him well later in life, as he tries to reconcile the various branches of Christianity with Judaic practices. For this, he becomes a thorn in the side of both the State of Israel, who granted him residency but refused to recognize him as a Jew, and the Catholic Church, whose leadership questioned in the 1980s if this monk preaching a return to Jewish Christianity should be muzzled. Daniel’s efforts, quixotic as they may seem, are shown to have had a tremendous influence on the lives of several, including those who only came to know of him through the written and oral testimonies of others.
However, the other narrative threads, especially those related to how people choose their faiths or non-beliefs in moments of crisis, are more difficult to follow, as they are often not developed further. There were several, at least three, sub-narratives that in their own right could have made for intriguing, if not outstanding, novels. Yet here there are so many disparate elements suborned into the greater narrative of one man’s transforming faith and ability to interpret the various languages of desire spoken by his congregants. It would have been nice to have seen more of this, as there are spaces of several letters where Daniel largely disappears into the background without much in the way of payoff later.
Yet despite these flaws, Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a powerfully constructed epistolary novel that largely works. Although some character/letter sets are more poignant than others, for the majority of them, the effects that this largely historical convert/monk had on their lives are palpable. The result is a story that promises to reveal new facets upon a re-read and is one well-worth visiting regardless of one’s creed or belief system.