Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 8, 2013

Daniel Stein, Interpreter (2012), by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait, Guest review by Subhash Jaireth

Daniel Stein Interpreter

It is my pleasure to introduce to you a very special Guest Reviewer.   A poet, essayist, playwright and novelist, Subhash Jaireth lives in Canberra.   His wonderful novel  After Love was released by Transit Lounge in October 2012, and I read and reviewed it just before the end of the year.

After Love is informed by the author’s intimate knowledge of life in Moscow, because between 1969 and 1978 he spent nine years living there and he is fluent in Russian.  I was especially interested in it because of my recent trip to Moscow and St Petersburg and have enjoyed a number of Russian-themed books during my ‘Year of Russian Literature‘ in preparation for my trip.  Well, Subhash came across my review of The Funeral Party by Ludmila Ulitskaya, and  approached me to see if I was interested in a review of another book by the same author that is now available to us in English – but he would review the Russian version as well.

Subhash’s offer meant the rare opportunity of a review of a novel in both its original language and in translation.  Of course I said yes!

Without further ado, here is Subhash’s review of Daniel Stein, Interpreter, which begins with the intriguing back story of its genesis:

In August 1992, Daniel (Oswald) Rufeisen,  a Jewish pastor at the Stella Maris Carmelite Monastery in Hafia, visited Moscow on his way to a reunion of inmates of the Jewish Ghetto at Mir (Dzyatlava) near Minsk, the capital of Belarus. In Moscow he met Russian writer Lyudmila Ulitskaya and her friends. At this informal meeting he spoke about his life and replied to questions from the audience. ‘Luckily someone in the room,’ recalls Ulitskaya, ‘turned on the tape recorder.’ This brief encounter convinced Ulitskaya to write the life-story of this remarkable man, a pravednik (a holy man) in her words.

As she began researching for the novel she came across  biographies of Rufeisin by Nechama Tech (In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisin, Oxford University Press, 1992) and by Dieter Corbach (Daniel, der Mann aus der Lowengrube: Aus dem Leben von Daniel Oswald Rufeisen, Scriba, 1993). These biographies and other brief accounts of Rufeisen’s eventful life seemed to Ulitskaya ‘inadequate’ and she decided to write the story herself.   She spent some time in Israel in the mid nineties, visiting places and talking to people. Rufeisen wasn’t alive anymore; he died in the summer of 1998.   Ulitskaya finished her book in 2006.   It was published in Russia the same year and received the Russian National Literary Prize in 2007.   The English translation was published in 2011 with the title Daniel Stein, Interpreter: A Novel.  It is translated by Arch Tait who had in 2010 received the 2010 English PEN Literature in Translation award for Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia.

Daniel Rufeisen was a German-speaking Polish Jew. During the Nazi occupation of Poland he managed to escape to the Jewish Ghetto at Mir and worked with the Gestapo and local police as an interpreter and helped three hundred Jews flee the ghetto. Escaping from the Gestapo he was forced to take refuge in a Catholic convent, where he decided to convert to Catholicism. After the war he migrated to Israel where he founded a Jewish Christian Church in Hafia.

Daniel Stein, Interpreter is Ulitskaya’s eighth novel. She won the Prix Medicis award for Sonchka in 1996 and the Russian Booker Prize for Kukotsky Case in 2011.

I first read Daniel Stein, Interpreter in Russian, downloaded as an eBook from a Russian website. I have recently read the English translation and I am truly impressed by it; the original voice of Ulitskaya has been conveyed without any loss or distortion.

There isn’t any doubt that Ulitskaya wanted to write the story of Daniel Rufeisen; she felt morally and emotionally compelled. This urgency to tell the story is reflected in the style and structure of the book. The Russian title doesn’t call the book a novel. However the English translation describes it either as a ‘novel’ or a ‘novel in documents’. The prose is minimalistic: brief and precise sentences help to maintain the pace of narration and assist the author to tell the story ‘directly’, without unnecessary diversions. The temptation to lace the text with metaphors and lengthy descriptions of landscape (interior or exterior) is avoided. This simplicity reinforces the power of story-telling.

The novel is divided into five sections. The heading of each chapter is precise (for instance, 1995, Hebron, Police Station or August 1992, On the Flight Frankfurt-Boston), and this anchors it firmly to the time and space of the story. Most of the novel is told in the first-person voice of a narrator. Only in a few chapters of the final section which describe the death of Daniel Stein in a car accident does the voice change to that of third-person.

‘I am not a real writer,’ notes Ulitskaya in the novel, ‘and this book is not a novel (Russian word roman), but a collage. With a pair of scissors I have cut out fragments of my own life and of the life of others and pasted them together as if without glue and stitch marks: a living story written on fragments of time.’ In my view the novel is not a collage but a ‘cinematic montage’ of narrative fragments, a technique pioneered many years ago by Russian cinematographer Sergei Eisnestein.  This fascinating montage/collage of ‘documents’ includes letters (sometimes only fragments), diary entries, newspaper reports and articles, telegrams, tourist brochures, sermons, transcripts of police interrogations, records of conversations, tutorial notes, KGB files, and various secret reports and complaints. Most intriguing however are the letters of Ulitskaya addressed to her editor Elena Kostyukovich. These letters, appearing at the end or beginning of each of the five sections, work as a framing device for the whole book revealing the author’s implied intentions.

The voice of the ‘real’ Daniel Rufeisen or his fictionalized twin Daniel Stein is heard and read in number of different ways. They consists of ‘extracts of Daniel Stein’s conversations with students in Freiburg, his conversations with Hilda, his German assistant, and his direct first-person narration of events.

In a Paris Review interview, Portuguese Noble Laureate Jose Saramago mentions that almost all novelists dream that one of their characters will one day become ‘somebody’ i.e., someone perceived by readers as a ‘real’ person. Ulitsakaya doesn’t face this problem. She begins with a historically real person (Daniel Rufeisen) and creates through and around him a fictionalized Daniel Stein, who at times appears even more ‘real’ than Daniel Rufeisen.

This technique of using historically real characters and/or events to create fictional narratives isn’t new. Julian Barnes did this with Flaubert in Flaubert’s Parrot. However my favourite is definitely David Malouf’s Ovid in An Imaginary Life.  His Hector, Priam  and Achilles in Ransom are equally impressive. In my book of three monologues To Silence, I have used a similar technique to tell the story of Kabir (1140-1518), Maria Chekhova (1863-1957) and Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639). I call my stories ‘fictional autobiographies’. In writing these monologues I felt as if I was performing the role of my principal protagonists. However my little book pales in comparison with Ulitskaya’s monumental act of story-telling. Her novel represents an extraordinary feat of a writer’s creative imagination, in which historically real people and events are skillfully intertwined with imagined events and characters. She has in a way created a whole constellation, the center of which is Daniel Stein, orbited by a galaxy of stars and planets illuminating each other. Their relationship is of codependence and need each other’s presence to tell the story.

One of my favourite Russian philosophers and literary critics is Mikhail Bakhtin. He is famous for developing the notion of dialogism.  According to him, I, as a person, always need the presence of the other to know who I really am. This is because I suffer from a ‘deficiency of vision’ which can only be compensated by a friendly or not so friendly ‘excess’ which the other possesses with respect to me. In Ulitskaya’s novel I spot a similar process of dialogic imagination, where the character of Daniel Stein is created though words and utterances of other characters. She uses their voices and actions to map the life of the fictional Daniel Stein.

Amongst the constellation of many partially or fully imagined characters I find Hilda Engel one of the most intriguing. We are told that Hilda’s grandfather was a Nazi General and a prominent member of the Party. Her father, a German soldier, perished in one of the battles at the Eastern Front in 1944. As a fourteen-year old girl she got the chance to read the diary of Anne Frank and came to know about the holocaust which forced her to question the silence, inaction and even participation of her own family members in the genocide of the Jews. She decides to go to Israel and dedicate her life helping the Jews. In Israel she meets Daniel Stein and becomes his assistant helping him run the Carmelite church in Hafia.

In one of her letters to Elena Kostyukovich Ulitskaya confesses that the character of Hilda Engel is based on a real German woman. But this real ‘angel’ of a woman didn’t go to Israel to help Daniel Stein but left Germany after the war to work in a Russian Orthodox Church in Latvia. I guess many characters in Ulitskaya’s novel have similar origins. Real or not real they are highly believable.

Ulitskaya makes her Hilda go to Israel to atone for the sins of her Nazi family members. Israel thus  becomes the land of promise and redemption where people who have lost  hope can go to redeem themselves. Israel isn’t only the promised homeland of the Jews but also the land of pristine, original and thereby true Jewish Christianity.  That is why Daniel Stein decides to establish his own small Carmelite Church where he delivers his sermons in Hebrew. The attraction of this land is so overwhelming that even Rita Kowacz, a Jewish ex-partisan and a member of the communist party, who was banished to Stalin’s Gulag after the War, decides to spend the final years of her life in Israel where she too converts to Christianity.

In representing Israel as the land of promise and hope the novel, however, fails to engage in an empathetic way with the story of dispossessed Muslim Palestinians. There are endearing depictions of Palestinian Christian Arabs such as Musa, the botanist, with whom Hilda has a brief affair, however Muslim Palestinians remain unspoken and unheard. Only one event, the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre of twenty-nine Palestinian Muslim worshipers in Hebron, allows them entry in the story.

 The unblemished and wholly saintly Daniel Stein too shows a few blind spots. One is revealed in a letter of Eva Mankuyan (the estranged daughter of Rita Kowacz) to her friend Esther Gantman. Eva is disturbed that her only son is gay. She discusses her son’s ‘predicament’ with Daniel Stein, who tells her that he found women so incredibly beautiful that it was beyond him to understand why some men decide to overlook them. He advises her to ask her son Alex to move out of her home so as to preserve herself from destruction.

These chilling words had a double effect on me. On the one hand it underlined the anti-gay position of the Catholic Church, but it also made Daniel Stein appear more human and hence fallible. Suddenly I began to see more holes and cracks in the solid, almost saintly, figure of this man.

The fact that I have read this novel both in Russian and English and have decided to write about it confirms that I find the novel compelling. Its overall ‘message’ and the ‘story’ are simple and yet its narrative expanse (what Bakhtin calls the Big Time of a novel) is unbelievably large. The moral and emotional urgency with which it has been conceived and written adds power to the narrative.

In his essay Epic and the Novel, Bakhtin calls the novel as the ‘… leading hero in the drama of literary development,’ of our time. This is because it ‘… best of all reflects the tendencies of a new world still in making.’ The novel as a genre of story telling will never perish because it will always find new ways of being and becoming. In my view Ulitskaya has created a novel which underlines this ever-changing, ever-becoming nature of the novel. As a writer this is what impresses me most. It opens new possibilities of story-telling.

Readers who cherish the art of slow-reading would love this book. It is simple to read, and if needed can be read in a few sittings, but it does force one to think about the world in which we live and the world in which this incredible book has come into being.

© Subhash Jaireth

The book sounds impressive, doesn’t it?  Thank you, Subhash!

Author: Ludmila Ulitskaya
Title: Daniel Stein, Interpreter
Translated by Arch Tait
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd, 2012
ISBN: 9780715643747

Subhash Jaireth read this title for this review in the original Russian, and in English.


Subhash Jaireth is the author of three collections of poetry: Before the Bullet Hit Me (Vani Prakashan, Delhi, in Hindi); Unfinished Poems for Your Violin (Penguin Australia, in English); and Yashodhara: Six Seasons without You (Wild Peony, in English); and a book of three monologues, To Silence (Puncher and Wattman, 2011, click the link for a description or to buy).

After Love is published by Transit Lounge, 2012, ISBN 97819219243255.  It is available direct from Transit Lounge and discerning independent bookstores such as  Paperchain  or Readings. 


  1. great review and a book I hadn’t come across myself ,love that you read it in both languages love to be able to do that to compare them ,all the best stu


    • I knew you would like it, Stu!
      The only time I’ve ever been able to read a whole book in another language was when i was learning Indonesian, and I read an Agatha Christie in translation. It was such hard work, I nearly wore out my dictionary!


  2. I was relieved to read the reviewer’s shock over the homophobic streak in the character Daniel Stein. It froze me to the bone, and it passed so quickly and casually I sadly fear it’s the author’s homophobia showing, not just the character’s. That comes late in the “novel”, so I finished reading it despite having lost faith in the author (in a book so obsessed with goodness and wisdom, the authorial presence ought to avoid hate-mongering, imho), and it does end powerfully. I’m surprised though that no review I’ve found talks about the portraits of the two religious zealots, one a Russian Orthodox priest who decides his child is the Messiah and one a Jewish settler/assassin, both grotesquely patriarchal husbands. As representatives of people with “true religion” they help to undercut the impression an American reader might get that the author herself is ecstatically religious, or obsessively interested in theology. I think that’s unlikely, and these two stunningly terrible characters–one of whom she shows morphing from a nice, and brave, idealist with a capacity for happiness into a bloody monster–are important in structuring the portrait of the Nachleben of the Nazis’ and Fascists’ evil, spilling over into the next generation and the new institutions, driving at least one of the “third generation” to suicide.


    • Hello Mary, and welcome:)
      Unfortunately, I haven’t yet read this book myself so I can’t comment on what you say about these two issues, except to say that the resurgence of orthodox religion in Russia seems to have led to more overt homophobia there and the author is reflecting that unfortunate reality. The other thing to bear in mind is that reviewers can’t – and shouldn’t – always cover every issue … the task is to convey a taste of the book so that others are encouraged to read it. I think that Subhash has certainly achieved that.


      • Hi Lisa, I didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the review, especially as it was by someone who’d read the book in Russian! But I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of “covering every issue.” The book is about “faith” in a religious sense, that’s what every character has in common; the Holocaust and Stalinism are seen in their role as challenging the very possibility of faith. So the stark evil of 2 of the 3 most faithful characters seems central–and no review I’ve found even mentions them, I didn’t say it was only Subhash. I was hoping someone might point me to a review that does take it on, or just say something about it. A review isn’t the end of a conversation–it’s the start of one!


        • Hello (again?) Isobel? (I’m a bit confused about your name, Mary or Isobel?)
          *chuckle* It seems we’ve both taken each other the wrong way, I didn’t mean to imply that you were being critical of Subhash, and I didn’t realise that you were talking about what was for you a major issue in the book.
          I’m a bit handicapped by not having read it, (one of the perils of hosting guest reviews!) but last night (after revisiting Subhash’s review) I checked out some of the conversations about this book at GoodReads, there are rather a lot so I didn’t have time to read them all. But from what I saw, you seem to be right, many of the comments seem to focus on religion and faith but they don’t mention the aspect that concerns you. I know how frustrating it is when you are keen to unpack some pressing issue that derives from reading and you can’t find anyone else who’s read it, but I’m sorry, I don’t know what else to suggest.


  3. Thanks anyway! I’ll go check Goodreads myself, didn’t think of it. I seem to be obsessed by the book, which I just finished and feel very ambivalent about.


  4. […] Daniel Stein, Interpreter, by Ludmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait, Guest review by Subhash J…(2006) […]


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