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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Ulitskaya remains pretty faithful to the broad outlines of Rufeisen's story while taking artistic liberties with the details. "Most of the novel's characters are fictitious, at least in part," she writes in her foreword, since "the intention has been to allow the truth of literature to transcend the truth of mundane reality." This the novel does, quite brilliantly, and its success belongs to the author's audacious choice to structure it as a series of documents – letters, diary entries, sermons, newspaper reports, police archives, transcribed conversations, etc. – rather than a straightforward narrative.Skip to next paragraph
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The arrangement works for two reasons. First, as the Holocaust moves farther away from us in time, it's more and more an event we can approach only through documents; Ulitskaya's presentation both acknowledges this inevitability and breathes new life into a subject that has moved away from eyewitness accounts toward imaginative recreations. Second, by requiring readers to spend time making sense of these fictitious documents as a coherent story, Ulitskaya makes us actively complicit in the story itself, and thus more willing to reflect on its mysteries, an effect in keeping with Elie Wiesel's famous observation: "Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness."
Again and again, through the unsentimental miscellany of this novel in documents, Ulitskaya makes the improbable believable. Why would Daniel, after suffering the horrors of this monstrous historical cataclysm, run toward faith rather than away from it, and toward a faith that has resonated with so much hostility in the minds of many Jews? How could his modestly utopian quest to build a house of worship modeled on the first Christian church in Jerusalem attract any attention in modern Israel, ground zero for every brand of religious extremism and Jerusalem-syndrome-afflicted nutjobs? Yet through the slow unfolding of Ulitskaya's composite storytelling, an entirely convincing portrait of Daniel emerges: We have complete faith in his character, if not in his beliefs.
This is true as well for the many other characters who wander through the book. Some are either firm atheists or devout conformists; but many of them, like Daniel, are wayfarers perched on a threshold between conventional forms of religious identity. Among them are an Arab Christian from a family of Muslims in Israel who's in love with a German girl; a fanatical Soviet Communist who makes a late-life conversion to Anglicanism; a former nun in Vilnius who fails to find a place for herself in both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; and a Moscow translator of Christian literature for samizdat who struggles toward ecumenicism. Through these characters, Ulitskaya suggests that spirituality might be sought not only through certain faith but also in this liminal, in-between state: a crossroads may be more an opportunity than a predicament.
With touching vulnerability, Ulitskaya inserts herself occasionally into the narrative as a character at her own artistic crossroads, inventing letters to a friend in which she confesses her doubts about the value of her novel-in-progress. Such doubts are a necessary by-product of risk, and Ulitskaya is nothing if not a risk-taker. A former geneticist, she lost her scientific credentials in the 1970s for printing a banned novel at her lab, and now, with this latest literary enterprise, she's bold enough to take on the thorny subject of Jewish identity where other Russian writers would not dare. Taking her lesson from Brother Daniel, who translated his hopes for mutual understanding into many languages, Ulitskaya writes in the last of her novel's confessional letters: "I recognize that what you believe doesn't matter in the slightest. All that matters is how you personally behave."
Donna Rifkind is a book critic for The Barnes & Noble Review.