Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans pursues a tale of star-crossed love in the Middle Ages
Stefan Hertmans won international acclaim for his prizewinning novel War and Turpentine — based on the memoirs of his grandfather, an artist and hero of the First World War. Beginning in the late 19th century, it traces his impoverished upbringing in the Flemish town of Ghent, leading to his harrowing experiences in the trenches of Flanders Field.
The Flemish writer's latest novel is also inspired by a real account — in this case, an extraordinary document from the Middle Ages. Titled The Convert, it's the story of a young Christian noblewoman in 11th century France who falls in love with a Jewish student, the son of a distinguished rabbi. Hertmans follows the young woman's journey through France, Italy and Egypt, amid the chaos and terror of the First Crusade. In his powerful reimagining, a 1,000-year-old tale takes on a surprising contemporary resonance.
Hertmans spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Brussels.
Who's that girl
"I had a neighbour who was German. He was very much interested in the story of the Huguenots, the Protestants who were chased out of France. He knew a lot about the history of the place. One day he gave me a copy of an article by Norman Golb, a Jewish professor and a specialist from Chicago who had been very intensely studying the Dead Sea Scrolls.
"The article was in English and my neighbour wanted me to read it. I put it aside because I was writing and working on War and Turpentine at the time.
I took interest in knowing who the girl would have been, and where she came from. She fell in love with the son of the rabbi and fled to my village.
"It was only years later that I took it out of a drawer and I read the story about Golb, who had, in the 1960s, analyzed one of the Hebrew manuscripts found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.
"To my great astonishment, the story he found in his manuscript was about a girl in a village, which they name in the Hebrew manuscript. Golb said, contrary to other interpretations of this text, this village can only be this small, unknown village of Monieux — where I happen to have a house.
"This was some amazement to me. I took interest in knowing who the girl would have been and where she came from. She fell in love with the son of the Chief Rabbi of France and fled to my village.
"This girl risked her life by doing something which was completely unthinkable in her time in the 11th century — namely, changing your religion out of love for somebody."
A personal diaspora
"I was doing my research and I read another book by Norman Golb. In 1976, they tried to dig a huge hole underneath the Palais de Justice in France in order to make a parking lot. They found a stone with a Hebrew inscription which read, translated, 'Sublime House.'
"They realized immediately this was a sign of a synagogue, a rabbi's house, or a yeshiva or rabbinic school. The whole story began to fascinate me and I went there myself. I was so lucky to be able to see it. I was so taken up and so moved by this room which is now under street level.
They realized immediately this was a sign of a synagogue, a rabbi's house, or yeshiva or rabbinic school. The whole story began to fascinate me and I went there myself.
"I thought, this girl of my village of Monieux was very probably born here, and the son of the rabbi must have studied here because this is a really great Ashkenazi yeshiva.
"He came to study because he was Sephardic. Some parts of the puzzle then began to fit. It was then that I decided I will not only write a book about this girl, I'm going to track her journey. Much like the way that she was on her personal diaspora, I will follow after her.
"This is why I decided that the book would have two parts. First the whole peregrinations of the girl with her boyfriend, and then me myself going all the way to Cairo in order to be there and to visit the place where they found the manuscript.
"I then had to go to Cambridge where the manuscript is kept in the great world-renowned Cairo collection. It took me all over Europe in order to write the story of my little neighbour girl in my Provençal village."
Of love and strength
"Monieux was known as a village with great hospitality. That's why my German neighbour knew a lot about it, because the Huguenots, five or six centuries later, were also welcome there. Monieux was a small village, but was very important at the time.
"This couple must have found refuge there. They fled there because the knights of the father of the girl had been searching for her up to Narbonne.
"This also tells us something very important: that the father was very wealthy and that he had the finances to send four or five knights all the way down to the south. Let's not forget that at that moment, the Norman knights had conquered Sicily, so going to Narbonne was just on their way to Sicily.
I was writing about a refugee chased by religious zealots of Christianity and finding refuge with tolerant Muslims and Jews in Cairo.
"They found the girl and when they knocked at the door, the couple fled to Monieux. That's how they ended up there.
"I think they had the intention of staying there for a few months or a few years. But apparently they found a life and had been welcomed, and they found their place. They had three children.
"They had some six happy years over there before the most unimaginable thing happened: the First Crusade army passed through the valley. Some sort of violence originates and there was a pogrom in Monieux.
"There she loses her husband and loses her children, who were taken away by the Crusaders, probably to sell them as slaves or to take them to Jerusalem.
"And with this we also find an answer to another question: why did this woman of Normandy, who had married in Narbonne in the south of France, then fled up to the north, 250 kilometres to the northeast [in the Provence Alps and Prealps] to live there for six years — why did she end up in Cairo?
"I think there was only one explanation: She was on her way to Jerusalem because she hoped to find her children. She was a desperate mother; and at that moment I also understood that I was writing about a refugee who crosses the Mediterranean.
"I was writing about a refugee chased by religious zealots of Christianity and finding refuge with tolerant Muslims and Jews in Cairo. I thought, 'My God, this is not a story about my village. It's a world story.'"
Stefan Hertmans's comments have been edited for length and clarity.