More than just an act of faith
OSWALD Rufeisen, known as Brother Daniel, was a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism while hiding in a monastery during World War II. He was a war hero who helped hundreds of people escape deportation and death. Daniel Stein, Interpreter is a fictionalised account of his life. It is also something far greater and more unwieldy: a detailed look at faith itself.
The unwieldiness of the subject is acknowledged in the way Russian author Ludmila Ulitskaya has structured this book. A multitude of characters tell stories, through letters, diaries, conversations and interviews, which intersect with Brother Daniel. There are also KGB files, newspaper articles, speeches and some small sections of straight narrative.
On top of this, the author writes letters throughout the book to a friend (Elena Kostioukovitch, a translator and essayist) on the difficulties of writing about and continually revisiting such challenging themes.
The Holocaust is one aspect of what's explored here, but most of the narrative takes place after the war.
Brother Daniel migrates to Israel but is not accepted as a Jew because of his conversion to Christianity. Along with a German woman, Hilda, he sets up the Church of Elijah by the Spring, which offers altered Christian services in Hebrew.
Brother Daniel seeks to repair (on a small scale) conflicts between Judaism and Christianity, and other faiths, by acknowledging their entwined histories and the occasions on which one broke from the other. He believes that the question of faith is essential for living. He writes to his brother: "There are too many people in the world who believe in rules, candles, sculptures, and other bits of this and that . . . I would like faith, which is the personal secret of each one of us, to be stripped of the husk and clutter, down to the wholesome, indivisible grain."
Israel from the 1960s to the 90s, when Brother Daniel is conducting his services in Haifa, is of course a hotbed of varying and conflicting beliefs. To Pope Paul VI, visiting in 1964, it is not Israel but the Holy Land.
There are characters who cling to the land that is important to their faith. For others, place does not matter. Ulitskaya attempts to give us much of this highly complex history and the ensuing conflicts. In this novel, we have the story of a man who is trying to negotiate some peace, some common ground, and to interrogate religious dogma. What we also have are fascinating, if at times heavy-handed, insights into Judaism and the history of Christianity (and subsequent schisms), and sections from the point of view of people of different backgrounds and faiths.
Brother Daniel is the thread that runs through their stories but is often not the most interesting part of them. One story is of Ewa Manukyan, who was born in a forest after Brother Daniel helped her mother escape from a Soviet ghetto in Belorussia (now Belarus). She writes, throughout the narrative, to Esther Gantman, who was there when she was born. Like many of the stories intersecting with Brother Daniel, Ewa's is about struggle, misunderstanding, reconciliation. She doesn't understand her "cantankerous", communist mother (and communism is explored also as a kind of faith) and later she struggles to understand personal choices of her son and husband.
The problem with Ewa's narrative is that it feels important but remains mostly unresolved. The openness, however, could be a deliberate move on the part of the author. She is saying that all these tensions -- between religions, people and within ourselves -- are ongoing, with only moments of relief. This is also why she has included so many stories and points of view. At times it is frustrating trying to keep up and remember who is who. I longed for a more straightforward narrative, as when Brother Daniel is telling his story, in a linear fashion, to a group of schoolchildren.
In her acknowledgments, Ulitskaya begs "forgiveness of all those I will disappoint, those who will be irritated by my outspokenness, or who will totally reject me". She should have faith that her book, reaching a broader audience now in translation, may cause people to engage with the history of their belief system.
This book also encourages understanding -- particularly for those unschooled in theology, like this reviewer -- of how certain faiths came to be. Finally, it provides some hope that more people like Brother Daniel will act as a bridge between faiths, and between belief and rationality.
Angela Meyer's LiteraryMinded blog is at blogs.crikey.com.au/literaryminded.
Daniel Stein, Interpreter
By Ludmilla Ulitskaya
Translated by Arch Tait
Scribe, 416pp, $32.95