#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews THE CONVERT by Stefan Hertmans

In this intriguing and at times devastating book, Hertmans pulls a clever trick: he offers his readers both a traditional historical novel, and an account of his writing of that novel. The effect is to vivify his heroine in a way that a conventional historical work might struggle to, but also to illuminate his own life and his readers’ lives: like all great books, The Convert makes us look at the world around us in a new way.

Based on two scraps of evidence found in the hoard of manuscripts known as the Cairo Genizah, The Convert tells the tale of Hamoutal, a Norman knight’s daughter, born ‘Vigdis’ in eleventh-century Rouen. After falling in love and eloping with a Jewish scholar, her story becomes entwined in the turmoil created across Europe and the Mediterranean by the first Crusades.

Many an historical novel begins in such a way: a writer uses a small fragment of a true story and from it creates a fiction. But Hertmans does more than that. He follows Hamoutal’s life not just in his imagination and through research, but physically – travelling the roads his fictional heroine, and possibly the real woman, has taken. He drives the route of the couple’s escape from Rouen to Narbonne – the home town of Hamoutal’s husband. He sails the route he believes she must have taken as she searched for her kidnapped children, from Marseilles to Palermo, from there to Alexandria, then by river to Cairo – the site of medieval Fustat.

But it is in the village of Monieux where Hertmans feels closest to his heroine. It is where he lives and where he writes the book. It is where his research takes on the form of amateur archaeology – there’s even a photograph in the book of the ancient Jewish ceremonial bath he uncovers on the outskirts of the village. And it is the location of the eleventh-century pogrom, perpetrated by crusaders, in which David, Hamoutal’s husband, is slaughtered, the synagogue burned down and her children kidnapped. This incident, while small in comparison to the seismic shifts the Crusades created across Europe, feels immediate and tangible. In the eleventh century, this remote village had a thriving Jewish community – one of many such communities in towns and villages across Europe. But now grass and tumbled rocks cover the area where the synagogue and cemetery stood.

There are still survivors of the Holocaust, of the death camps, alive to tell their tales. But how can any writer tell the stories of the persecution and slaughter of the Jews across Europe nearly a millennium ago in as moving away as those real-life accounts? They can’t, but Hertmans seems to have managed a way to approach that chill of reality we feel when we hear those personal autobiographies. By presenting his physical and imaginative journey alongside Hamoutal’s, observing the hypermarkets and car parks where the farms and castles once lay, the allotment filled with potatoes where the Monieux synagogue once stood, he reminds us that these events happened right here, under our feet. Creating a fictional life for Hamoutal is an act of the imagination, but it is also an act of empathy. Wandering the streets of Marseille, Hertmans observes:

‘I feel a slight, strange euphoria; the present seems exotic today. I am so immersed in Hamoutal’s age that I feel as if a time machine has carried me into her distant future, where I have no right to be.’

We are all living in Hamoutal’s future. Her story occurred, perhaps not in exactly the way Hertmans tells it, but something close to it. A Norman noblewoman, with a Frisian mother and a Viking father, living in France, married to a Sephardic Jew, a convert to the Jewish faith and with Jewish children, Hamoutal’s life could seem very far from the lives we live today. But Hertmans manages to bring us close to her, and very close to the atrocities that form our continent’s history.

Reviewed by West Camel


Written by Stefan Hertmans

Translated by David McKay

Published by Harvill Secker (2019)

Read The Dutch Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy this title through the European Literature Network’s The Dutch Riveter bookshop.org page.

West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now.

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BITCH by Pilar Quintana

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE FOX WAS EVER THE HUNTER by Herta Müller

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of GARDEN BY THE SEA by Mercé Rodoreda

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Tomasz Jedrowski

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CAMILLE IN OCTOBER by Mireille Best

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of LUCKY PER by Henrik Pontoppidan

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of MY PARENTS: AN INTRODUCTION and THIS DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU by Aleksandar Hemon

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of APOSTOLOFF by Sibylle Lewitscharoff

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of ABERRANT by Marek Šindelka

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE HEART OF A STRANGER. AN ANTHOLOGY OF EXILE LITERATURE editedby André Naffis-Sahely

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE TRANSLATOR’S BRIDE by João Reis

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CROSSING by Pajtim Statovci

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CODEX 1962 by Sjón

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE LAST DAY by Jaroslavas Melnikas

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE DEAD by Christian Kracht

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE PRINCESSE DE CLÈVES by Madame de Lafayette

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BOOK OF RIGA edited by Becca Parkinson & Eva Eglaja-Kristsone 

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE DEATH OF THE PERFECT SENTENCES by Rein Raud

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BEAUTIES – ESSENTIAL STORIES by Anton Chekhov

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE DARK BLUE WINTER OVERCOAT & OTHER STORIES FROM THE NORTH edited by Sjón and Ted Hodgkinson

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE HISTORY OF BEES by Maja Lunde


Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of OCTOBER: THE STORY OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION by China Miéville

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of SOUNDS FAMILAR or THE BEAST OF ARTEK by Zinovy Zinik

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of SEEING PEOPLE OFF by Jana Beňová

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of STONE UPON STONE by Wiesław Myśliwski

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of A TREATISE ON SHELLING BEANS by Wiesław Myśliwski

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE PENGUIN BOOK OF DUTCH SHORT STORIES edited by Joost Zwagerman

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE YOUNG BRIDE by Alessandro Baricco

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of VILLA TRISTE by Patrick Modiano

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of THE BROTHER by Rein Raud

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME: SWANN’S WAY – A GRAPHIC NOVEL by Marcel Proust

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of ISTANBUL ISTANBUL by Burhan Sönmez

Read West Camel’s #RivetingReview of CRÉ NA CILLE by Máirtin Ó Cadhain


Category: The Dutch RiveterReviewsMarch 2021 – The Dutch Riveter


One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *