Stefan Hertmans' novel The Convert is first cousin to historical biography.
Fleshed out around a skeletal frame of eleventh-century documents and half-known truths, Hertmans has taken all that historians have accrued and filled the gaps with educated best guesses and poetic prose.
This novel follows Hamoutal (formerly Vigdis Adelas) and David Todros, young lovers who crossed religious battle lines for love, and explores in unflinching detail the tragic repercussions of this life-altering decision against the backdrop of the Crusade's pogroms.
Layered on top of the lovers' narrative is Hertmans' own journey to uncover the full picture of their tale. In doing so, he has imposed himself into their lives as witness and narrator.
Though there is fine line between being artistically daring and simply arrogant, Hertmans' undertaking is unquestionably one of dedication to craft and accuracy.
Undue historical revisionism has been shirked, and details unknown are often declared as such outright.
The Convert flows with a deft yet deliberate pace. The natural imagery is astounding; utterly human without amateurish anthropomorphism.
The mundane details of European and Mediterranean daily life are highlighted with a rustic vividness that borders on hallucinatory, yet readers aren't bogged down by embellishment.
The Europe Hertmans experiences is built to fall away and reveal Hamoutal's world beneath our own. Though the lovers' story isn't pretty, Hertmans (and translator David McKay) have made it beautiful.
While the immersion is overall a masterclass effort, there are jarring turns of phrase worth mention.
The author's determination to exist in spaces Hamoutal occupied can at times sound less like a quest for the truth, and more akin in tone to a possessive obsession.
Perhaps that is what it takes to collect the crumbs of a tale across time, stretched thin between fragmented documents and half-known truths, but the objectification of this unknown woman by the author is no less disconcerting for the centuries between them.
One thing is certain: The Convert was not written to be devoured with the breakneck energy of a thriller.
This is a novel to recommend to poets, historians, gardeners and crafters; to those who know well that the reward is not solely in conclusion, but also in the unfolding interim.
Come in slow. Make good use of the maps as you travel.
- Jerzy Beaumont is a Canberra poet and art worker.