Stefan Hertmans, The Convert

Stefan Hertmans, The Convert. Harvill Secker 2019. Translated from the Dutch by David McKay. 20161

 Back in November 2019 I posted on Flemish Belgian author Stefan Hertmans’ novel War and Turpentine (link HERE). The Sebaldian tone and style and metafiction/autofiction elements that I noted there are also present in this later novel, The Convert.

This novel also seems based on historical documents. This time not by someone in the author’s own family, but MSS from the 11C found in modern times and now stored in the Cambridge University Library. They relate the story of the terrible events that befell a young Norman Catholic woman of noble birth, and the Jewish man, son of a Narbonne rabbi, with whom she fell passionately in love. They married and had two children.

They are caught in a vicious anti-Semitic massacre perpetrated by the rabble of undisciplined plundering zealots calling themselves crusaders en route to fight in the Holy Land. Their hypocrisy is matched only by their brutality.

Vigdis sets off in the aftermath of this horrible event in quest of her two children, abducted by these thugs. Her journey takes her through many harrowing experiences to Cairo, and then back to the village in the south of France where she’d lived for a time with her beloved husband and children.

These events are interspersed with the author’s autobiographical account of his own pilgrimage in what he hopes is the same route taken by the distraught Vigdis. He becomes emotionally entangled in her unhappy quest, and takes his reader with him.

Although the pace and drive of the narrative fall away towards the end, and the focus shifts to the fate of the MSS that recorded the story of this unfortunate family, it’s a stirring, chilling story. The capacity of people who profess to be religious to persecute those of other faiths is depicted with the same vivid, unflinching language as that used in Hertmans accounts of WWI in War and Turpentine.

It’s another brilliant translation by David McKay.