National Literary Prize BIG BOOK (2007, Russia)
Russian Booker of the Decade nominee (2011)
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Ludmila Ulitskaya, a mature master working in the best vein of the Russian literary tradition, has written a novel that poses an ageless moral question: What is good? Where is true virtue? She comes to the conclusion that the real marker of what is good is good itself, that is to act and be good, making the religious beliefs and internal contradictions of each of us secondary to this main moral principle.
DANIEL STEIN is at once a skilfully crafted literary roman epistolaire, a philosophical tale, a profound historical survey and an entertaining piece of fiction. It covers wide geographical areas – Germany, Israel, the US, Russia – and dramatic historical epochs - from the Second World War in Warsaw to modern Israel. It enters into deep historical detail: the tragedy of Holocaust, the rise and fall of Communism and, even more important, it gives a new reading to the role of Christianity. Far from being commonplace this novel breaks new ground and ventures boldly into a new literary spaces pulling down many established “rules” of literary form along the way.
The book is constructed as a patchwork of private histories recounted through the letters, personal diaries, taped conversations and a liberal supply of official notes, interrogation reports, documents and letters of formal complaints to the authorities. The element that links all of theses sources, the core of this multi-faceted narrative gem, is the story of DANIEL STEIN, the common thread woven throughout the lives of each of the book’s characters.
Daniel Stein, is a Polish Jew, who survives the Holocaust by disguising himself as a Gestapo interpreter and translator. This charade allows him to not only save himself, but to help save hundreds of human lives by sharing vital information with those whose in peril. After WWII Daniel converts to Christianity, is ordained, enters the Order of Barefoot Carmelites and emigrates to Israel where he creates a Christian community; this is one of many times throughout his life when Daniel makes the difficult choice to swim against the current.
But the story of DANIEL STEIN, is not the story of Brother Daniel alone. Rather, Daniel is that connecting thread; a string on which other peoples lives are threaded like multicolored pearls. The novel presents us with a wealth of wonderful characters, and each is portrayed with the richness of detail that is so typical of Ulitskaya’s literary style. Each character is created by Ulitskaya with deep psychological insight and an understanding so profound that the reader is given the impression that at any second, any moment, the plot—as with life itself—might unfold in any direction. But…alas.... the Writer can choose only one path. (Yet all the other directions are still there, living as a tree’s branches each ready to stem off into a new direction and into a new book.)
The novel abounds in gentle humor with a touch of paradox: among the many extraordinary characters in this novel is a young German woman, who is obsessed with the idea of her nation’s guilt, but at the same time absorbed with the Christian idea of holiness. She falls in love with a young Arab, who is an erudite and profound scholar of Judaica. An old German communist mother, survives through the care of a Hebrew hospice, finding peace from a deep moral crisis through the Christian faith. Every character in the book faces some sort of moral crisis, every civilization is at a turning point, the book a precise sketch of so many of the big questions and conflicts of modern culture: the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, historical aspects of the life of Jesus Christ, the Jewish question and the coexistence of today’s residents of Israel (Catholics, Jews, Arabs, Poles, Germans, and others), violence and soullessness of the modern life.
We should also not ignore the fact that the book draws from a sound biographical basis, as the character of DANIEL STEIN is inspired by the life of Oswald Rufeisen, the real Brother Daniel, who was a Carmelite Monk, lived at the Stella Maris monastery on Mount Carmel in Haifa, died in Israel in 1998.
It is interesting to note that Ludmila Ulitskaya drew her inspiration for DANIEL STEIN from a story from the Bible, the story in which, on Pentecostal Sunday, the apostles are granted the gift to speak languages that were before unknown to them. Daniel’s ability and willingness to speak with everyone is his true language - a symbol of love, humanity, and tolerance. Ulitskaya beautifully renders the life, the extraordinary warmth and humanness of this modern saint, who inevitably ends his life as a martyr, the victim of his own will to help others at all costs.