The Convert

Written by Stefan Hertmans
Review by Viktor Steiner

Vigdis, daughter of a rich Norman nobleman, is brought up in the Christian faith during the 11th century. As a teenager, she falls in love with a Jewish student, David Todros, converts to his faith, and elopes with him to Narbonne, where his father is Chief Rabbi. They are married, and she is renamed Hamoutal. When Norman knights come looking for her, she and David are forced to flee to a remote mountain village. Later, Pope Urban motivates both knights and thousands of poor peasants to conduct a Crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens. Totally undisciplined and ill-equipped, this army mercilessly persecutes local Jews as enemies of their Lord. In a night of rampage, David is among those murdered, and his and Hamoutal’s two older children are taken captive.

This dual timeline story – historical facts enhanced with much imagination – interleaves Hamoutal’s perilous treks across the western world and back again in search of her children with the author’s meticulous attempts to retrace her travels, guided by two Hebrew manuscripts found in the ruins of a synagogue in Fustat, Egypt. Hertmans has dug deep to capture what life was like for Hamoutal and to unravel the complex political and religious intrigues of the time. The prose is good and descriptions of scenery sometimes very eloquent. Time and again we are confronted with Hamoutal’s pain and anguish in her many desperate situations, her agonising over who she really is, and whether she was right to abandon her harsh Christian religion in favour of a kinder Jewish faith, and her heartbreak each time she encounters a setback in her quest. This is a fascinating and very informative account of a historic person’s passionate life. It does, however, require perseverance to negotiate the interlocking time periods.