This is a good book. It is also not clear that it should ever have been written.
The book revolves around the life of Daniel Stein, a young Polish Jew in pre-WWII Poland. At the time of the German invasion he succeeds in fleeing Eastwards. He manages to pass himself off as a Pole of German ancestry and finds himself employed as an interpreter, first of all by the Belorussian police collaborating with the German occupation, where he tries to prevent the local inhabitants from perishing just because they do not understand what it is they are meant to do. Then he is recruited by the Gestapo and helps a part of the local ghetto escape their planned annihilation.
After being found out, he is concealed in a convent where he ends up by converting to Catholicism. After the War, he is for a time a monk in Poland before emigrating to Israel where he establishes a church (of Elijah by the Spring) where he conducts services in Hebrew. While not enjoying the favour of church authorities, he gathers some followers around himself and finances his activities by doing guided tours around Israel.
The narrative is carried on in more-than-epistolary or semi-documentary style by means of extracts from letters, official reports, newspapers, cassettes sent in place of letters, but there is no effort to reproduce the appearance of these sources. It includes within itself escapees from the ghetto, Daniel’s family, a secret nun in Lithuania, her devilish temptations and fictive husband, Pope John Paul II, a repentant German girl who comes to aid Daniel Stein and carries on a twenty year affair with the gardener Musa. It also includes letters from Ulitskaya to her pal saying how difficult writing the book is.
Ludmila Ulitskaya can be an extremely artless writer, but she has the Thing, the ability to turn human experience into black-and-white patterns on the page and make it pass like a virus into the nerves of her readers. Especially as regards families, which I think is here as ever her main theme. I think her idea is that the family is the main thing, to keep it going and add to it, and the church is the same kind of thing but not as good. Daniel Stein certainly expounds the family-is-good motto in unplanned pregnancy and similar cases.
The character of Daniel Stein is closely modelled on Oswald (Daniel) Rufeisen, and it seems as if Ulitskaya started off with the idea of writing a factual book about Rufeisen and then got drawn into a novel instead. I’m not sure that was a good decision, but the novel is a good one and well worth reading.