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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Daniel Stein, Interpreter

Ludmila Ulitskaya

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To purchase Daniel Stein, Interpreter

Title: Daniel Stein, Interpreter
Author: Ludmila Ulitskaya
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 405 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Daniel Stein, Interpreter - US
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  • A Novel in Documents
  • Russian title: Даниэль Штайн, переводчик
  • Translated by Arch Tait

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Our Assessment:

B- : amazing life-story, interesting approach, but not entirely successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ . 4/4/2009 Felix Philipp Ingold
TLS . 9/9/2011 Catriona Kelly
The Washington Post F 10/5/2011 Melvin Jules Bukiet

  From the Reviews:
  • "Da jedoch all die vielen Zeugen, unabhängig davon, welche Geschichten sie zum Gesamtbild des Helden beitragen, mit ein und derselben Stimme sprechen, nämlich derjenigen der Autorin, und da diese Stimme durchweg zu belletristischer Klischeehaftigkeit, wenn nicht Geschwätzigkeit tendiert, vermag sie dem Anspruch der Authentizität nicht wirklich gerecht zu werden. Dass aber ein grosser Roman wie «Daniel Stein», der ohne Sex und Crime auskommt, dafür aber nachdrücklich für die Erneuerung moralischer und religiöser Werte wirbt, im postsowjetischen Russland zu einem Bestseller werden konnte, macht deutlich, dass solche Werte heute wieder gefragt sind und dass sie auch in belletristischer Aufbereitung effizient vermittelt werden können." - Felix Philipp Ingold, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Moving between history and imagination, the novel also engages in a constant interplay of documents (.....) But in Daniel Stein, Interpreter, Ulitskaya's very adeptness in ventriloquizing workaday writing is something of a problem. Even in the hands of an able and practised translator such as Arch Tait, the prose often has a stony, cloddish feel" - Catriona Kelly, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The mix feels random. When Ulitskaya is on a roll, she provides multiple letters in a row from a correspondent, but then she seems to lose interest and skips to another venue. Several characters die offstage in accidents, disposed of in a way that merely ends rather than significantly concludes their lives. (...) The first spiritual journey is fact, the second a strained coincidence. After that, the book becomes a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the conversion of the Jews. Worse is the background against which these conversions occur. Lord knows, Israel is no paradise and Israelis no angels, but Ulitskaya dwells on the ugliest aspects of the place and its people. (...) Daniel Stein, Interpreter genuflects to Jewish suffering while diminishing it at every opportunity. This is evident not merely in the novelís broad scope, but more subtly and insidiously in its language." - Melvin Jules Bukiet, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Daniel Stein, Interpreter is presented as A Novel in Documents, as Ludmila Ulitskaya assembles letters, transcribed conversations, archival documents, the occasional newspaper article and much more in shaping her novel, 170 different pieces in all. Each of the five parts even ends with a letter from the author to her literary agent, Elena Kostioukovitch (official site), in which Ulitskaya writes about the writing of the book (and sends off the just-finished section). Adding to the pseudo-documentary confusion is the fact that much of the material is based on fact: the life of the main figure, Daniel Stein, essentially mirrors that of Oswald Rufeisen (while many of the other characters are in part or whole invented).
       As an entirely fictional creation, Daniel Stein's life might seem too unbelievable, which is perhaps why Ulitskaya sticks so close to the (incredible) facts. A Polish Jew, born in 1922, Stein finds himself working as an interpreter for the Gestapo during World War II. He warns the ghetto of Emsk that they are to be liquidated, and helps in their break-out plan that saves some three hundred of them. On the run after that, Stein hides in a convent and eventually joins the partisans; when the war ends the NKVD enlists him, but eventually he is able to make his way to Poland. Having converted to Catholicism, he becomes a monk -- and eventually moves to Israel. When he goes to Israel he claims citizenship according to the Law of Return, but the government doesn't want to grant it to him on these grounds because of his conversion to Catholicism, leading to lengthy court proceedings that went all the way to the Supreme Court (exactly the case that Oswald Rufeisen had been involved in). For the rest of his life he was a very active priest (and tour guide -- for the money) near Haifa.
       Ulitskaya presents Stein's life piecemeal and only very roughly chronologically; the first two documents are from the 1980s, for example, as one of the characters, a woman who was born shortly after the escape from Emsk, meets another survivor of the ghetto. Stein tells some of his own story, too -- most concisely in a 1990 talk to schoolchildren in German Freiburg, a talk that is presented, piece by piece, across the sections of the book (complete with Q & A from the kids when he's finished) -- but many of the details are filled in by the many people whose lives he touched, from his brother to the ghetto survivors to some of those he works with and helps in Israel.
       Among Stein's talents is his gift for language, and he is at some points literally a translator. He liked this role:

I was at least enabling people to reach agreement between themselves and I was not shooting at anybody.
       Throughout his life he is seen as this sort of enabler -- though more successful at helping people find themselves (or their Lord) than each other. (In addition, the Israeli authorities are also none too thrilled with his baptizing ways, wile the Catholic authorities have issues with how he conducts his services and his questionable "thoughts on polycultural Christianity", among other things.)
       Stein isn't the only character with a larger-than-life personality, as Ulitskaya populates the books with a number of peripheral stories. It -- and Stein's own very spread-out tale -- makes for great breadth but little depth, a skimming along on the very large surface. The stories and personal issues are often of interest, but even as the characters wrestle with great and moral issues Ulitskaya resolves them all very easily and neatly. In this god-determined world even Stein's most shocking actions -- such as an occasion during the war when, in an impossible moral bind, he chose not to translate accurately -- have only immediate consequences, with little sense of any after-effects: they serve as anecdotes (albeit often chilling ones), but little more.
       Stein is a fairly open-minded fellow, suggesting everyone should find their own way to (his) god, but in some respects also more circumspect, telling his longtime assistant Hilda (one of the invented characters, who Ulitskaya used to replace the actual woman who played this role in Stein's life, "a hard, authoritarian woman whose life is completely closed to me"):
When I was young I believed people should be told everything and that, as a pastor, I had a duty to share all my knowledge. Over the years I came to see that was a mistake. A person may know only what they are capable of assimilating. I have been thinking about this for half my life, and especially since I have been in Israel, but there are few people Ican confide in. Really only you. You see, it's a terrible thing to disturb someone's equilibrium. If a person has become accustomed to thinking in a particular way, even a slight digression from that can prove painful. Not everybody is open to new ideas, to making their understanding more precise and supplementing it, to change.
       So Daniel is not a literal translator -- even of the Church's teachings (which is one of the reasons why they have issues with him) -- but an interpreter. And an interpreter who believes he has the answers -- i.e. knows who can be told what, and how much. No one (certainly not Ulitskaya) seems to have much of an issue with this, and Stein is seen as the wise, benevolent father-figure by nearly one and all.
       There is a great deal of fascinating material in the novel, from the shifting situation during the Second World War in the regions Stein traveled through to the position of Christians in Israel (both Arab Christians, as well as the many different immigrants). Yet there are also odd gaps -- Stein's period in a Carmelite monastery in Kraków (where he was one of two candidates for the novice-position, and beat out another religiously ambitious fellow, "one Karol Wojtyła" ...) is barely touched upon -- and for all its many pieces Ulitskaya's account is only limitedly multifaceted.
       Ulitskaya notes early on that:
With the whole of his life he raised a heap of unresolved, highly inconvenient issues which nobody talks about: the value of a life turned into mush beneath one's feet; the freedom which few people want; God for whom there is ever less room in our life; efforts to extricate Him from archaic words, all the ecclesiastical garbage, and life which has closed in on itself. Have I packaged that temptingly ?
       Yet she has tried too hard to package her fiction temptingly, addressing the many raised issues relatively superficially. Perhaps one should be grateful for the absence of theological and philosophical debate and speculation -- Ulitskaya tries to show rather than describe -- but as is what she offers does not seem to lead very far; what answers there are are the easy ones of religious books, not the harder ones of life. (Admittedly, Ulitskaya also leaves a great deal unanswered, describing situations and circumstances that may lead the reader to his or her own speculation, but there's a lot of Sunday School simplicity to these, as well.)
       Typically, Ulitskaya substituted and invented a figure -- Hilda -- for the person who apparently inhabited her role in Rufeisen's life, the "hard, authoritarian woman whose life is completely closed to me". Where fact becomes too inconvenient for her picture it is simply cast aside and replaced. Frustrating, too, is the almost monotone of voices in the novel: Ulitskaya shows a very limited range, and so despite the great variety here the pieces blend a bit too easily.
       Daniel Stein, Interpreter is, ultimately, hagiography, and like all hagiography rather simplistic and unconvincing. A religious novel, it is also programmatic, taking a specifically Christian position on the state (and State) of Israel. Stein -- the Jew who saw the light and converted to Catholicism -- is the model heroic character (a model Christian, too, in his imperfection, and in the horrible deeds he was a part of (since Christianity is so forgiving)). Contemporary Judaism and Islam figure only very peripherally (though the Druze are looked upon quite favorably) -- though admittedly institutional Catholicism is also not seen in the most favorable light.
       The fascinating material makes Daniel Stein, Interpreter a novel of some interest, and Ulitskaya's presentation, rapidly shifting back and forth among stories, makes for a kind of suspense that keep the reader engaged (though it might also cause some frustration). Still, it ultimately seems less than its parts, the life, in the end, still too fragmentary. And ideologically one can take issue (many issues ...) with much of it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2011

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Daniel Stein, Interpreter: Reviews: Oswald Rufeisen: Other books by Ludmila Ulitskaya under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia
  • See Index of books dealing with Religion

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About the Author:

       Russian author Ludmila Ulitskaya (Людмила Евгеньевна Улицкая, Ludmila Oulitskaïa, Ljudmila Ulitzkaja) was born in 1943.

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© 2011-2022 the complete review

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