Daniel Stein, Interpreter
Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya creates a novel from the real-life story of a Holocaust survivor who became a monk.
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American readers in search of current literary views of Russia can find them in a sprinkling of new translations by edgy Moscow-based virtuosos such as Vladimir Sorokin and Victor Pelevin. They can find Russian sensibility once removed in the books of talented young authors who emigrated years ago and now write in English: Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis, Lara Vapnyar, Olga Grushin. Or they can acquaint themselves with an internationally acclaimed writer who ought to be much better known here: Ludmila Ulitskaya.
An award-winning Russian novelist whose 14 works of fiction have been translated into many languages, Ulitskaya has until now only published four books in English; her most recognized title is likely the Manhattan-set novel "The Funeral Party," a nominee for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Daniel Stein, Interpreter was published five years ago in Russia and is now available in English through a marvelous translation by Arch Tait. With its multilingual title character who seeks to use his translating gifts to reconcile and unify as well as to communicate, it might be the perfect introduction to Ulitskaya's big talent.
Her new novel takes its inspiration from a real-life figure, Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust with a mix of ingenuity, daring, and preposterous luck. He fled first to Lithuania and then to Belorussia, where he was arrested multiple times and saved by a number of people, from an ordinary farmer to an SS major. Posing as a gentile, he worked as a translator for the Gestapo in a small Belorussian town, where he also secretly managed to liberate hundreds of Jews from the local ghetto before the remaining unfortunates were rounded up and shot. He fled again and hid in the attic of a nunnery, on one occasion impersonating one of the sisters to avoid Nazi scrutiny, and then joined a brigade of partisans in the forest, with which he remained until the Red Army liberated Belorussia in 1944.
Just as remarkable as this survival tale, though, is what Rufeisen chose to do when the war was over. He returned to Poland, converted to Catholicism, became a Carmelite monk and moved to Israel, where he attempted to build an ecclesiastical bridge between Jews and Christians. Transformed into Brother Daniel, this former youth-movement Zionist became the charismatic and deeply unconventional spiritual leader of a motley community of emigres and outcasts on Mount Carmel in Haifa, all of them seeking an essential connection with a Jewish Jesus Christ.