Duckworth Overlook, £16.99, 408pp, £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya, trans. Arch Tait

Russian saga with spirits

Varieties of religious experience is Ludmila Ulitskaya's theme in Daniel Stein, Interpreter, in which the Russian writer tells the story of a man who devotes himself to God after surviving the horrors of Nazism. The hero is a Polish Jew who comes of age at the beginning of the Second World War, manages to hide his origins and, working as an interpreter for the Gestapo, saves many lives by risking his own.

Stein sees his fate as a miracle granted by God and decides to repay his debt. Having converted to Catholicism after the war, he founds a Christian community in the Promised Land, where he preaches in Hebrew. The plot is based on the story of a real person whom the author admired.

Stein is an interpreter in a wide sense ; his mission is to enable people to communicate with their spiritual side. According to him, there is no need to look for the Lord in books and rituals: "You can meet Him anywhere... in the liturgy, on a river bank, in a hospital, or in a cowshed. The closest place to find Him, though, is in your soul".

The book "is not a novel, but a collage" of letters, diaries, secret reports, transcripts and other documents, all designed to draw the portrait of the protagonist, to explain "why he was as he was". Real people and their accounts combine with fictional, each section finishing with the author's letter to her friend. In one, she confesses: "the whole vast amount of material crowds in on me" – and the reader often feels the same way. The number of sources is overwhelming.

The multi-voiced narrative works on the whole, and some of the accounts are worth a separate book. The story of a German woman who dedicates her life to working for the Israeli state to atone for the sins of her nation is one such example. The protagonist's brother, ghetto survivors, priests and converts: all are here for a reason. If only they talked more about Stein and less about themselves, or told us something more urgent than their family problems and love dilemmas. Phrases like "only Grisha was able to warm me up, using a tried and trusted method" remind you of the propensity of Ulitskaya's heroines for girly talk, which seems even less justified here than in her other books.

"I hate the Jewish Question!" the author exclaims, making you wonder what exactly she means. Writing about the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel is no easy task, and Ulitskaya does it because she cannot help it. Stein becomes an Israeli citizen, but is not allowed to put "Jew" in the box that reads "Ethnicity". The very existence of the latter proves that the questions asked in the novel are timely.

Despite all its shortcomings, this is an important and serious book that deals with such themes as love and duty, identity and conscience, religion and xenophobia. On its release in Russia in 2006, it caused heated debates. Orthodox Christians labelled it "a black hole of atheism", anti-Semites resorted to their usual bigotry, and Zionists tut-tutted at the criticism of Israel.

Daniel Stein "raised a heap of unresolved, highly inconvenient issues... 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". This is what the novel did, prompting people to voice their views on problems often swept under the carpet. For a country where you also had an "Ethnicity" box in your passport until recently, it is an achievement in itself.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before