Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
(New York, NY: Overlook Press, 2011)
Miracles abound in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s new novel, Daniel Stein, Interpreter. Early on, Daniel Stein—a young Polish priest who has been forced to become a translator for the occupying Nazis—organizes the escape of 300-some members of a condemned Jewish ghetto. The breakout, which takes place on the eve of the prisoners’ execution, succeeds against all odds. I had a hard time believing it.
I had a hard time because, like many readers, I have developed over the course of my reading life a practically encyclopedic knowledge of exactly these types of escapes. I have seen, or read, or heard about them happening to hundreds of Jewish prisoners, under the noses of dozens of sleeping or distracted or just plain stupid Nazi guards. My familiarity puts me in a strange position, for though I want to believe in them (especially when they succeed), I am wary of believing in them too quickly. I need to be convinced that what I am seeing or reading or hearing is real and not a trick designed to manipulate my emotions. At the same time, I want to be moved by what I experience in a way that purely factual records can’t always achieve.
Given the stringency of my demands, it is amazing that Daniel Stein convinces me of anything. It is especially amazing when I consider that its story is, strictly speaking, not fiction at all but a fictionalized biography of Oswald Rufeistein, the priest and war hero whose very real life serves as a sort of skeletal system to Ulitskaya’s novel. As in an actual body, this skeleton remains mostly hidden—by the letters, communiqués, memos, interviews, and lectures that make up the book surrounding it. The most Ulitskaya will admit about this is that “while many of the documents used in the book are authentic, many are fictitious, and the intention has been to allow the truth of literature to transcend the truth of mundane reality.” Interestingly enough, it is this very unwillingness to specify that makes her book so convincing. Her dispersal of Rufestein’s life releases its truth rather than diluting it, suffusing Daniel Stein with a rawness and sincerity that is rare in Holocaust literature. In this way, the novel accomplishes one of the classic goals of its form: it takes a piece of human experience that has frozen into cliché and, through a persistent and sometimes clumsy urge to understand, warms it back to life.
Ulitskaya’s evidence that the mayhem of the twentieth century can be understood is shared by Father Daniel Stein. Like most Polish Jews of the period, Daniel begins his training in interpretation early. He grows up surrounded by languages—Polish, German, Yiddish, and Hebrew—but his true genius is for something more subtle and difficult than vocabulary. As his brother Avidor tells Ewa, “He had a knack of talking about complicated matters in a very straightforward and comprehensible way.” He made himself understood, in other words, in a way that few linguists can: by using the languages at his disposal as tools for communication, rather than objects of veneration.
Daniel’s interpretive ability, then, is more than just a matter of words: it is a function of the generosity that he extends, not just to people, but to the world itself. Describing his years spent in Nazi-occupied Poland, he says, “There were many occasions when it might have seemed that I should have died, and yet every time I was miraculously saved.” Illogical though they may seem, the reversals of war become a proof—for where others see absurdity, or blankness, Daniel sees a page full of mysterious signs, like words written in a foreign language. The question of who exactly is writing these words is perhaps less important than the fact that someone is, as Daniel himself explains in a lecture to schoolchildren:
I have never been an atheist. I began consciously praying when I was eight, and I asked God to send me someone who would teach me the truth. I imagined this teacher would be handsome, educated, and have a long moustache, rather like the president of Poland at the time. I never did meet such a teacher with a moustache, but for a long time the one whom I met and whom I call my Teacher talked to me precisely in the language of miracles. Before learning to understand this language, you had first to learn its alphabet.
Daniel’s reading of this “language of miracles” is supple: a return to that “book of life” that he himself admits (with characteristic understatement) “takes a certain knack” to understand. Despite a continual metamorphosis, Daniel Stein, Interpreter, never retreats from its history—not even in the dramatic conversion from Judaism to Christianity that Daniel undergoes while hiding in a Polish nunnery. The change seems out of character, yet according to Daniel’s reading of the New Testament, Christian revelation is itself a Jewish discovery. So his conversion is less an abandonment of his past than an engagement with parts of it that have been ostracized:
I saw that Jesus really was the Messiah, and that his death and resurrection were the answer to my question. The events in the Gospel had happened in my ancient land, to Jesus the Jew, and the problems dealt with in the Gospel were so important to me precisely because they were Jewish problems, associated with the land for which I was homesick. Here everything came together: the resurrection of Christ was not punishment from God but the path to salvation and resurrection. I identified with the cross which my people bears and with all I had seen and experienced. This understanding of suffering is also to be found in the Jewish religion.
Daniel’s attempt to answer Jewish suffering with Christian forgiveness continues his Pentecostal quest to rescue the world’s legibility from the Babel of twentiethcentury incomprehension. Like most quests, it fails literally but succeeds figuratively (“in fable,” as Kafka says). One of its most obvious successors is Ulitskaya herself, who has integrated fact and fiction in the same communicative spirit with which Daniel combines Old Testament rigor and New Testament enthusiasm. At the end of each of her novel’s five sections, she inserts a letter of her own, meditating on the challenges that she has faced in composition. On the last page of the book, she acknowledges her creation’s imperfections, saying “I beg forgiveness of all those I will disappoint, those who will be irritated by my outspokenness, or who will totally reject me. . . . My excuse is my sincere wish to tell the truth as I understand it, and the craziness of that ambition.”
Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a reminder of how crazy the desire to communicate can be, and how miraculous it is when a writer succeeds in doing so.
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Josh Billings reviewed Daniel Stein, Interpreter for TLR’s Summer 2011 issue, The Rat’s Nest.