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)
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.
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