To some in the realm of journalism and literary representation the notions of “poetic license” and “poetic truth” stand as two very dubious cornerstones on which to build factual novels. The shaky foundations leave all kinds of room for interpretation, embellishment and, perhaps in the wrong hands, the glorification of the undeserving, Binjamin Wilkomirki’s Fragments a prime example.
Russian bestselling author Ludmila Ulitskaya, however, brings an interesting take to the table with her book Daniel Stein, Interpreter, a semi-fictitious (more on that later) account of the real life Brother Daniel who led an unconventional and in some ways unbelievable life. Ulitskaya’s novel chronicles the life and ripple effects of literary creation Dieter “Daniel” Stein, an alter ego based on the real Oswald Rufeisen—priest, Gestapo, and Jew.
Presented in epistolary format, the book brings the reader through a web of documents—everything from recorded “Talks to Schoolchildren” to NKVD archives, newspaper articles, and personal letters—on two twisting and intermingling chronological timelines. The first, as is a recurring theme, starts with one of Brother Daniel’s acquaintances in 1985, one for whom he starts as only a rumor. On paths always winding, whether through hearsay or by accident, the people of Ulitskaya’s novel and those existing in real life come to him with problems personal and profound.
The second timeline, starting in 1959, follows the life of the man himself. Born a Jew in Poland and given a German education, Daniel came of age during the Holocaust and hid his ethnicity from the SS by working as an interpreter for the Gestapo, translating in turn for the Germans, Belorussians and the NKVD. While working for the Germans he organized the freedom of 300 Jews from the Emsk ghetto, escaped massacres and his own executions, and after the war converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He later moved to Israel. And that’s where the story really takes off.
Despite Ulitskaya’s creation of some characters and documents—and it should be noted that many of the documents and testimonies in the book are in fact real—her Daniel is not an exaggeration. Teaching without discrimination and at times to the dismay of his adopted Catholic Church, Brother Daniel went back to the teaching of God before the split of Judaism and Christianity. In the midst of writing a biography Ulitskaya gives an insightful and at times comical and cathartic look at tensions in and beyond Israel—of faith, of lifestyles, of ecclesiastical orders and families.
With the whole of his life he raised a heap of unresolved, highly inconvenient issues which nobody talks about: the value of a life turned into mush beneath one’s feet; the freedom which few people want; God for whom there is ever less room in our life; and life which has closed in on itself. Have I packaged that temptingly?
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in _Morse, My Deaf Friend_— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
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Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .