The Convert

The Convert

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Overview

Finalist for the 2020 National Jewish Book Awards

In this dazzling work of historical fiction, the Man Booker International–long-listed author of War and Turpentine reconstructs the tragic story of a medieval noblewoman who leaves her home and family for the love of a Jewish boy.
 
In eleventh-century France, Vigdis Adelaïs, a young woman from a prosperous Christian family, falls in love with David Todros, a rabbi’s son and yeshiva student. To be together, the couple must flee their city, and Vigdis must renounce her life of privilege and comfort. Pursued by her father’s knights and in constant danger of betrayal, the lovers embark on a dangerous journey to the south of France, only to find their brief happiness destroyed by the vicious wave of anti-Semitism sweeping through Europe with the onset of the First Crusade.
 
What begins as a story of forbidden love evolves into a globe-trotting trek spanning continents, as Vigdis undertakes an epic journey to Cairo and back, enduring the unimaginable in hopes of finding her lost children.
 
Based on two fragments from the Cairo Genizah—a repository of more than three hundred thousand manuscripts and documents stored in the upper chamber of a synagogue in Old Cairo—Stefan Hertmans has pieced together a remarkable work of imagination, re-creating the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers whose steps he retraces almost a millennium later. Blending fact and fiction, and with immense imagination and stylistic ingenuity, Hertmans painstakingly depicts Vigdis’s terrible trials, bringing the Middle Ages to life and illuminating a chaotic world of love and hate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524747084
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 225,483
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

STEFAN HERTMANS is an internationally acclaimed Flemish author. For more than twenty years he was a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Ghent, where he wrote novels, poems, essays, and plays. His previous book, War and Turpentine, was awarded the prestigious AKO Literature Prize in 2014.

Translated from the Dutch by David McKay.

Read an Excerpt

I

Mount Jupiter

1

It’s early in the morning. The first rays of sun are just coming over the hilltops.

From the window where I look out over the valley, I see two people approaching in the distance. I suppose they’ve come down from the heights of Saint-Hubert, from which you can see both the peak of Mont Ventoux and the valley of Monieux. It must have taken them some time to cross the sparse oak forest on the high plateau, where wolves roam free.

The famous Rocher du Cire—a steep, majestic cliff where bees swarm up beyond reach and, in the summer sun, the stone sometimes glistens with the honey that drips from the rock face—is desolate and indomitable at this hour, its great mass sunk in the morning mist. All this the two travelers have seen and passed in silence.

The morning light catches the outlines of their still-tiny forms. They descend with difficulty to the spot where nowadays the farmhouse of La Plane watches over the valley like a guard dog. From there, the winding road leads them down to the left bank of the river—the right side, for them, since they’re headed upstream. They slip in and out of view, now concealed by trees, now re-emerging. Then they come to a large, sloping expanse of grass, and their pace quickens slightly. From there, they can see the half-finished turret rising from the high stone wall like a reassuring beacon. Now the sun is a little higher, its rays reach the low valley and set the village aglow. In their time, all the houses are made of stone, so it’s hard to tell in the half-light where one ends and another begins, as if the village has sprung from the cliff by some miracle, carved by sunlight—as if someone has pulled aside a great curtain to reveal a sleeping landscape.

The blue of dawn fades fast, giving way to yellows and greys. The warmth of the morning swells the last clouds into slow, vast boulders in a purple sky; over the length of the river the white veil evaporates before my eyes. A swarm of bee-eaters is already swooping over the rooftops.

Once the pair has come a few hundred meters closer, I see that the man is using a branch as a crude cane. The woman limps, as if walking is hard for her. They both look drained. Did the woman sprain her ankle on one of the stony highland paths? Or do her shoes chafe her feet during their long, exhausting daily treks? I adjust my binoculars; there’s no mistaking now that she is pregnant. The man is wearing a loose smock and has a homespun hat on his head. Sometimes he takes the woman’s arm to help her over an obstacle. A second man, with a large sack, comes into sight behind them. He follows in their footsteps, leading a mule.

What time did they get up this morning? Were they roused by the cold at the foot of a tree? Or did they wake at an inn? In the quiet panorama of this spring morning, nightingales sing in the bushes by the river. You can hear them from here, letting out their wild, melodious calls. As the sun lifts off the crest of the hill, an owl sails silently over the twisted oaks, not to be seen again until nightfall. Timeless peace, the distant howl of a wolf-dog, the cuckoo’s monotone call as it flutters over the lonely woods near Saint-Jean. The landscape smells sublime in these early hours; it breathes an ethereal beauty. On this spring morning all the irises are open, the wild cherry tree is in blossom, the rosemary is dense with bright little flowers, and the scent of thyme rises with the warmth of the dew. Warmth of the dew—Hamoutal. This Jewish name pops into my head, the man’s affectionate name for the woman.

I know who they are. I know who they’re running from.

I wish I could welcome them into this house, offer them a hot drink they wouldn’t recognize—a cup of coffee, for instance. Where are they to live, now that their house has been gone a thousand years and the medieval section of the village is lost under grass and shrubs? At any moment, today’s first passing car may give them the shock of their lives, sending the young woman into premature labor.

The couple are now straggling into my village.

I wake with a start from my daydream, close the window, light a fire for the cool morning hours, make coffee. Now and then I feel the foolish urge to look out of the window. Patches of sun slide across the old tiled floor; the day is still and empty.

*

This village was once known as Mount Jupiter—Mons Jovis. The Neolithic cave dwellers not far from here were followed, long before the Christian era, by builders of crude stone houses. Though their appearance is lost in the night of time, you can sense their presence in the earliest houses of the ruined upper village. In the old chapel at the edge of the ravine, a stone with Latin inscriptions was once found, dedicated to Mars Nabelcus, a deity worshipped by the Romans in the region.

In the Middle Ages, the primitive houses were scattered among rocks that formed natural obstacles and small oaks that shot up in unexpected places. The village was sheltered by the steep, rocky slope, a natural wall almost a hundred meters high. Sometimes you stumble across forgotten cellars amid the dry grass, undergrowth and thyme-covered rocks. The shadowy recesses smell of mold and soil, even on hot days. Here in this brushland of brambles and withered vetch where I often sit and dream away the day, there was once a room, a place of birth and death.

Around the tenth century, feuds broke out over the deep wells under some of the cellars. During heat waves—the infamous canicules—the water turned brackish and poisoned the villagers. Vagrants were accused and tortured, perhaps a vestige of the tradition of ritual sacrifice. The tumbledown houses up on the heights—battered by gales, the mistral and the tramontane—stood with their windowless backs to the wind, so that they could hold out for centuries. They were not fundamentally different from the bories, crude stone huts built by herdsmen on the dry plateau or in the oak woods. The villagers had already learned how to make a simple spyhole in the stone, which could be covered in the winter with a wolf or fox skin, or sometimes with a pig’s stretched bladder.

On the small plots where the medieval houses were built, the ground was unstable. The walls, several meters thick, were erected in haste and propped up against each other. The buildings grew taller over the centuries, but not because of any technical advances. That explains why, from the late eighteenth century onward, quite a few houses simply collapsed. The remains decayed into picturesque heaps of stone, overgrown with wild grapevines that turn blood red in October. The surviving structures have, for ages now, leaned against their narrow, heavy fronts like graybeards resting on their canes. Improvised patch-ups have seen them through the centuries. The crumbled clay-and-sand mortar has been replaced with cement; the old oak struts and crude buttresses have been reinforced with concrete; and the houses are now held together by steel rods thrust straight through the walls, screwed firmly in place and kept there by a clever system of metal clamps, which sometimes resemble a scorpion’s pincers.

*

It’s easy to see why the two lovers have come here. The village has been a safe haven for passers-by and refugees before: Jews in the eleventh century, Huguenots in the seventeenth. Places with a reputation for tolerance became well known among wanderers. By the eighteenth century, when the village was referred to in the annals as Monilis, it had almost a thousand inhabitants jammed into its narrow streets. Seven hundred meters up, it was dark and dreary in the harsh winters, but cool in the long, hot summers. Filth festered in the gullies, breeding rats, which bred fleas, which bred plague. The first cases of bubonic plague in the region were recorded in the fourteenth century. Four hundred years later, during the great epidemic imported through Marseilles, plague walls were erected: heavily guarded stacks of thick, rough slate. Refugees were beaten to death if they tried to steal past the watchmen. Corpse robbers made the rounds to strip the fallen bodies of their last possessions, after rubbing themselves with a mixture of thyme, rosemary, lavender and sage. Superstition took care of the rest; the treatment seems to have shielded them from infection. I once heard an elderly woman call this now-traditional herbal sachet les quatre bandits. The plague wall is only a few kilometers away, overrun with grass and weeds.

For centuries this rugged region proudly defied the central authority of Paris, and its population grew ever more diverse. Spaniards, Moroccans, Italians and the occasional sailor from Marseilles came and conceived children with local beauties from the dry, desolate hills. The paupers sat in the spring wind, their eyes watering, among the wild irises, poppies and thinly sown spelt. Their children had arched, thick-soled feet, a fierce look in their eyes and damaged skin. Sometimes a band of plunderers would pass by, cracking a couple of herdsmen’s skulls against a wall, raping a few women and, once the village was paralyzed with shock, taking what they pleased. Then they would vanish over the hilltops, leaving a void that filled with wind, sun, silence, fear and prayer.

In this way, like an ancient vagabond, the village drifted into the twenty-first century. Almost nothing has changed; on early-autumn mornings, the shepherds still drive their steaming flocks through the main street. The click of their dainty hooves and the many soft tones of their jingling bells have remained more or less the same since Virgil wrote his Eclogues; the animals leave behind trails of droppings and bits of wool on the asphalt as they press forward, the lambs making wild leaps. The patient mailman waits in his small delivery van, smoking a cigarette, while the flock passes through the village. In the old Romanesque church, you can still go to Sunday Mass. The congregation sings slightly off-key, a time-honored mark of sincere religious faith.

In the winter, the village is sometimes snowed in for days. Then its inhabitants live on the supplies they’ve squirreled away in their cellars and freezers. In the long, hot summer, the climate is harsh and overpowering; drought exhausts the soil, the lavender is harvested, and the smell of fire spreads over the plateau as the precious oil is extracted from the plants. The loveliest times of year are between these two seasons, when the land can breathe again and wild bees buzz among the creepers. Once there was some fuss about building a railway line straight through the primeval gorge, in the meandering riverbed, to make the village easier to reach from the plain below. This plan was soon abandoned, when it proved impossible to lead so much as a horse through the gorge. Motor vehicles first gained quick access to the highlands in the 1990s, along a highway over the thousand-meter-high ridge of Les Abeilles.

The days have no hours. You can pass the late afternoon staring at a patch of sunlight as it slides across the rough floor, a white light that seems to tremble and scale the wall before disappearing. Nothing happens—that’s the big event you can’t look away from. Time does its own thing.

2

In truth, it’s the village rabbi, Joshuah Obadiah, standing by the synagogue early one morning, who watches the refugees come down the hill, there in the spring of the year 1091. A mounted messenger must have told him a few days earlier that they were coming. He is worried about these young people—not only because they need protection, as a mixed couple, but also because he knows the woman will give birth to her child in a matter of days, and it’ll be weeks before he can find a suitable house for them. Until then, they’ll have to be his guests. Why aren’t they arriving on horseback? He can only guess. Maybe they were waylaid by bandits or horse thieves. Maybe they disguised themselves as commoners to escape notice by their pursuers. He waits impatiently until they’re inside the walls and sends his wife to welcome them at the southern gate, still known today as the Portail Meunier. They wind a faltering path to his house—close to the spot where a thousand years later I will spend summer after summer blithely reading, as happy as I’ve ever been anywhere in this mundane world.

Hamoutal has a nasty scrape on her right foot, and she twisted her ankle so severely that the ligaments have torn. The foot is swollen and red, blood has gathered in black patches under the skin, and her ankle is at risk of infection. The rabbi’s wife cleans the wound with a mixture of lavender oil, nettles, and lukewarm water. Hamoutal’s husband, David Todros of Narbonne, informs Joshuah Obadiah of the latest developments.

The rabbi nods pensively and tugs at his beard; his wife dabs the young woman’s delicate, injured foot.

What’s your real name? the rabbi says.

She hesitates; is he asking for her old Christian name?

David breaks in. Sarah, he says. My wife’s name is Sarah. Hamoutal is a pet name.

He lays his hand on hers.

The four of them sit together in silence.

*

The times are troubled. The religious peace once established by Charlemagne has been eroded over the years by political instability. Feudal warlords have seized control everywhere and rule their territories autonomously; the central authorities are losing their grip; there are tales of misrule; the law is often no more than an instrument of power. After centuries in which Jews and Christians lived side by side in relative calm, there is ever more frequent news of savage attacks on Jewish communities. In recent months, many Spanish Jews have fled to the south of Provence. Most have gone to Narbonne, the town near the coast now thronged with vagrants seeking their fortune or searching for refuge. David’s father, the great Rabbi of Narbonne—known far and wide as the King of the Jews, because he’s said to descend directly from King David—is getting old. He can hardly take care of his duties anymore; exhausted, he passes sleepless nights worrying about his eldest son and his daughter-in-law.

He sent the two refugees to that far-off corner of the Vaucluse region to keep them out of the grasp of the Christian knights dispatched from Rouen by the girl’s Norman father to bring her home. Heading toward Spain would have been too dangerous; the road to Santiago de Compostela is teeming with Christian pilgrims. The area around Toulouse and Albi was roiled by the struggle against the Manichees and the rise of heretical movements, with constant violent clashes and executions. Nor could they flee to a city; press gangs were rounding up men left and right for expeditions to the Middle East, and bands of irregular soldiers made the roads unsafe, picking fights with passing travelers.

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