'The Convert' - A conversion into the unknown

Though The Convert is far from a happy story, it is refreshing to read a new novel about European Jewish life outside of the context of the Holocaust, and this refugee tale still resonates strongly.

SALADIN AND Guy de Lusignan after the Battle of Hattin, in 1187 during the Crusades. The novel takes place during the First Crusade (photo credit: SAIDTAHSINE/WWW.GOODFREEPHOTOS.COM)
SALADIN AND Guy de Lusignan after the Battle of Hattin, in 1187 during the Crusades. The novel takes place during the First Crusade
(photo credit: SAIDTAHSINE/WWW.GOODFREEPHOTOS.COM)
Flemish author Stefan Hertmans has a knack for inserting himself into stories of long ago.
In War and Turpentine, Hertmans’s 2013 homage to his grandfather, the author’s presence in the story makes sense. The book features entire sections featuring Hertmans’s writing in the first person, though the book is largely based on his grandfather’s notebooks which recount his experiences as a soldier on the Belgian front lines during World War I. The book is made richer by Hertmans’s descriptions of receiving a family heirloom watch from his grandfather and watching him paint later in life.
Hertmans’s latest release is The Convert, the historically-based 1,000-year-old tale of a girl from a noble family, named Vigdis Adelaïs, who falls in love with the son of a rabbi, converts to Judaism, and runs away with him to marry, fleeing her Christian family into the whirlwind of the First Crusade with a boy she first lays eyes on outside the Yeshiva of Rouen, France. Hertmans, who owns a home in Monieux, the tiny French village where much of the novel takes place, is as much a character as Hamoutal (the Hebrew name taken by Vigdis Adelaïs once she converts) and her husband, David. At the beginning, it is something of a head-scratcher, but a few dozen pages in, it’s difficult to imagine the book without the author as a vital component of the story.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Hertmans said the decision to insert himself, and by extension, the present day, into an ancient tale was “very simple and personal.”
“I grew intensely fascinated by the story which related [to] the life of one of my neighbors, so to speak,” he said, referencing the village he shares with Hamoutal – the distance of a few meters and the centuries dividing them.
“I became the journalist of my own initiation and could get this spiritual contact with a girl who has walked the streets of this still almost medieval-looking village.... When researching and visiting the magnificent Yeshiva of Rouen, I decided there and then that I would follow in her footsteps and do [Hamoutal’s] ‘personal diaspora’ myself,” the author said.
“She vaults into terra incognita, blind and overexcited, reckless and naïve,” Hertmans writes of Hamoutal after she meets David at the beginning of The Convert. “She does it for those eyes and that little beard, for that smile and that strange excitement, for that yellow cap perched on the crown of his head, for the unknown and the adventure that draws her in, for that cloud of dazzling brightness in her muddled head. She has seen the white unicorn and wanders delirious through a wood of ancient prohibitions.”
Hertmans vaults into the medieval tale with equal reckless abandon, but it is Hamoutal who serves as his white unicorn.
The Convert may be historical fiction, based mostly on a few scraps of paper found in the Cairo Genizah, but Hertmans scours France from north to south as if he were an investigative journalist, following the young couple’s travels from Rouen to the coast, with research trips as far afield as Cairo and Cambridge, for a visit to the Solomon Schechter Archive. It is evident that Hertmans is haunted by the story, and as a result, he haunts the lovers’ trail equally.
Hartmans says that he’s been fascinated by Jewish literature and arts over the course of his life and suggests that he may himself have a convert in his lineage.
“I have found that the point where the genealogy of my forefathers stops, mid-seventeenth century, the name Hertmans changes [to] Hartman,” the author said. “Hartman is a name of some Ashkenazi families, and the earliest forefather’s forename was Christiani, which might have meant that he converted to Christianity.”
Though The Convert is far from a happy story, it is refreshing to read a new novel about European Jewish life outside of the context of the Holocaust, and this refugee tale still resonates strongly in 2020.
“What I hope every reader will find in [The Convert],” Hertmans said, “is the sad story of refugees of all times, of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, of persecution and uprootedness. I hope it is a sort of exercise in empathy and understanding and a plea for tolerance and open-mindedness.”

Ben Fisher is a freelance writer from Seattle, WA. He worked for the Jerusalem Post from 2015-2017.
  

THE CONVERT
By Stefan Hertmans
Harvill Secker
304 pages; $14.65