Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Lyudmila Ulitskaya -- some thoughts

(from squirrel-monkey.livejournal.com)

Last time my parents visited, they brought me Lyudmila Ulitskaya's DANIEL STEIN, INTERPRETER. I finally got around to reading it, and, eighty pages in, I have to say that it's a wonderfully dense and chewy book. There's a number of things about it that got me thinking very intently.

One, the structure. It's a fractured book that leaps from 1942 Poland to the modern day US, Israel, France…. And it is told in letters, diaries, graduation addresses, memoirs, audiotape transcripts etc. It weaves back and forth, from one narrator to the next, and this is an interesting thing: the protagonist of the book is almost always in the background, present in other people's stories as a figment of their memories, a footnote, a "and there was this strange little man on the train, he showed us some small icons". Very rarely he speaks directly or someone (usually a family member) speaks directly OF him. And this is what makes it work: people are not telling Daniel's story, they are telling their own. He's only relevant as perceived by them, as seen out of the corner of one's eye.

Two, this is a book that largely deals with Jewish identity. And there are quite interesting things there too. When Western writers and filmmakers speak of the Holocaust (much in the same way as what happens when they speak of any other injustice), Jewish survivors tend to be painted as meek victims, either bearing and surviving with quiet resignation or cowering somewhere in hiding. Basically, passive, surviving or being prosecuted. Ulitskaya actually writes abut Jewish guerillas in Russian and Polish forests, living in shelters dug in the ground. One of the protagonists is born in one such guerilla camp and spends the first month of her life in a sleeve cut off her mother's winter coat. Her mother, a fanatical communist, goes from prison to guerillas to war to labor camp with the same possessed dedication – and she is anything but a victim.

I think there's a temptation to take any persecuted group and construe them as completely helpless, as someone whose salvation can only be expected from without (Schindler's List etc). This is a mistake I see done again with (more recently) Muslim women, when those would-be saviors forget that those who they are saving might be in possession of some agency as well. Helpers, yes, I can get behind that. Saviors, however, have to be careful.

Anyway, Jewish identity. One of the characters talks about Jews as ethnicity vs Jews as a religious entity, practitioners of Judaism. Throughout European history, Jewish persecution was framed as a religious issue – even in the terrible late 19th-early 20th century in Russia, they were pressured to convert to Christianity to avoid persecution. And yet, during Pogroms it seems that sufficiently Jewish-looking individuals were persecuted all the same, whether they were wearing a cross or not. And of course during WWII the religious aspect became irrelevant – it was the ethnicity that became the final liability.

So Ulitskaya talks about it, about how "Jewishness" has always been defined from outside, either as a religious or an ethnic construct. "Jews are those who non-Jews THINK are Jews," says one of her characters. And it struck me that this is the core of all persecution and discrimination – the inability to define oneself. If you're defined by others, you are by that definition are not free. And it dovetailed nicely with things I've been babbling about at Wiscon, about multiculturalism being possible only when a minority is given a voice in the mainstream culture – ie, when a minority can add its self-perception to the outside, majority, construct of them. When they get to construct the consensus reality, so to speak.

Then there's religion. The protagonist is a Polish Jew who becomes a Catholic priest. Who is then denied citizenship in Israel because of his Catholicism and despite his ethnicity. Who is scorned because he worked for Gestapo during the war even though he became an interpreter there to help other Jews and was responsible for saving hundreds of lives. Who converted from atheism to Catholicism, thus annoying his secular and religious friends and relatives. So in addition to everything else, there's this complex interplay between religion and ethnicity and family obligations and all that dense dense stuff. As I said, I'm only 80 pages in, but I'm thinking about the things she's saying pretty much non-stop. Expect further updates and natterings.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Is this book available in English?

Fish Monkey said...

I don't think so -- at least, Amazon is not turning anything up, sorry.

debbie said...

Ulitskaya is by far the best Russian post-modernist writer. I can't stop reading and re-reading her. "The Funeral Party" is my favorite of all times though...