Ludmila Ulitskaya: Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Interpreter)


The latest addition to my website is Ludmila Ulitskaya‘s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Interpreter). This is a quasi-hagiographic fictionalisation of the story of Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who, during the war joined the Gestapo to help his fellow Jews escape the Nazis and later joined the Soviet NKVD for similar reasons. During the war, however, he was sheltered for a long period by nuns and, as a result, converted to Catholicism. After the war, he eventually emigrated to Israel, as a Carmelite monk, where he was not welcomed by the Israeli authorities, who felt that the Law of Return should only apply to Jews who retained their Jewish faith and not to Jews who had converted to another faith. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where a compromise was reached, allowing him to stay in Israel as a Carmelite monk. He stayed in Israel till his death but caused trouble both for the Israeli authorities as well as his Catholic superiors, because of his strong views favouring syncretism. Ulitskaya tells the story using what she calls documents, mainly letters but also diary excerpts, newspaper clippings and other such documents. The story is told by a series of fictitious characters who, in some way, intersected with Daniel and his life, even if only peripherally. Ulitskaya builds up not only a picture of Daniel and those who came in touch with him but also of the sufferings of the Jews under the Nazis and, to a lesser extent under the Soviets. While interesting, I found the book a bit disappointing for both its hagiographic approach and its whitewashing of Israel, generally showing that it was (more or less) a land of milk and honey for the Jews, while almost totally ignoring the plight of the Palestinians.

The Ulitskaya book that actually won the Russian Booker
The Ulitskaya book that actually won the Russian Booker

The blurb on my copy says Winner of the Russian Booker Prize. This is very dubious advertising. While Ulitskaya did win the Russian Booker, this was for Казус Кукоцкого [The Kuzotsky Case] not for this book, which was nominated but did not win, losing out to Aleksandr Ilichevsky’s Матисс [Matisse], which also has not been translated into English (or any other language).

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