Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Daniel Stein, Translator

"Daniel Stein, Interpreter is already seen by many as the great Russian novel of our time."

At least, that's what its publisher claims on the dust jacket. I'm not wholly convinced, though it certainly is true that the novel tells the story of a fascinating character, as the rest of the blurb explains:

"Winner of the Russian National Literary Prize and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, Ludmila Ulitskaya has earned accolades abroad for this groundbreaking work, at last available in English.

"The novel tells the story of Daniel Stein, a Polish Jew who narrowly survives the Holocaust by working for the Gestapo as an interpreter. After the war, he converts to Catholicism, becomes a priest, enters the Order of Barefoot Carmelites, and finally emigrates to Israel. Despite this seemingly impossible progression, the life and destiny of Daniel Stein are not an invention - the character is based on the actual life of Oswald Rufeisen, the real Brother Daniel.

"This innovative, furious, and funny book, compiled as a series of documents - letters, diary entries, postcards, and other records - ranges from before the war to modern times and from the shtetl to Israel to America. It portrays a life full of amazing contradictions and undaunted faith. In Daniel Stein, Interpreter, Daniel's willingness to communicate with everyone, to translate across linguistic and cultural divides, not only assured his freedom but stands forever as a symbol of love, humanity, and tolerance."

For any Catholic with an interest in literature, this book looks amazing: a positive depiction of Catholicism from a mainstream publisher; a fresh look at what the Catholic novel might be from outside the Anglophone world; a Christian novelist with an international reputation.

But how good is it?

Well, I'm reserving judgment at the moment as I'm only halfway through. In fact, I wouldn't normally comment before finishing a novel but I'm posting now because Ulitskaya was in London last week, in conversation with Brian Klug from St Benet's Hall, Oxford, as part of Jewish Book Week. For brief feedback from one member of the audience click here.

However, at the moment I can't honestly say it's living up to the publisher's gushing praise. And the last sentence of the blurb may explain why. I fear that Daniel Stein, Interpreter has received the accolades it has, partly because of the message of tolerance it gives rather than because it is a great work of literature.

Much the most interesting parts of the novel, I think, are those sections which deal with Daniel's experiences during the war. Unfortunately these sections get rather lost amid a mass of other material about Daniel's later life which is often semi-hagiographical in nature. As one perceptive reviewer has pointed out in the Jewish Review of Books, these "sermonizing" sections are among the novel's weakest.

I am a great fan of postmodern fiction so I don't object to the fragmentary, multi-textual nature of the book but the " letters, diary entries, postcards, and other records" need to serve a purpose and, at the moment, I can't see what that purpose is. Postmodern novels at their best are both playful and clever: this one doesn't seem either clever or playful enough. In fact it all seems rather earnest.

Perhaps Ulitskaya's translator, Arch Tait, provides the key to its interpretation when he quotes Ulitskaya as saying that, “I recognise that what you believe doesn’t matter in the slightest. All that matters is how you personally behave.” Presumably the many different voices in the novel are meant to demonstrate the truth of this assertion.

Maybe I am being unduly harsh on this novel simply because I had such high expectations. The fact that such a novel even exists is in itself a hopeful sign and so it shouldn't be written off too quickly. 

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