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the convert

8 august 2022

At some point in the last couple of years, Stefan Hertmans' historical novel The Convert got into my reading queue, and then in the way of such things dropped out again and I lost track of it. Until, in the summer of 2022, operavision.eu streamed a production of Wim Henderickx' new opera, also called The Convert (the libretto by Krystian Lada is in English).

The Convert as an opera has its flaws. And after the manner of most new music, it will probably disappear from the stage not long after its recent premiere at the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp. But the production is consistently engaging and finds a strong fusion between its music and its story. Discordant voices express the anti-Semitism that is one of Hertmans' tragic themes; ethereal and often beautifully lyric passages find the love at the heart of the story, and the strangeness of the protagonist's journey.

Much like The French Lieutenant's Woman, you wouldn't think that The Convert – a self-referential, "told" historical novel about the process of understanding the past – would translate well to drama. But just as Harold Pinter and Karel Reisz found a way of bringing John Fowles' novel to the screen, Henderickx, Lada, and director Hans Op de Beeck figure out how to show Hertmans' novel on stage.

Hertmans himself is a central character in the book, but he does not appear at all in the opera, probably a wise choice. The Convert, on the page, weaves two stories together. Near the end of the 11th century, a well-born Gentile Norman woman named Vigdis leaves Rouen, headed south for Narbonne in the company of David, son of the rabbi of Narbonne, who had been studying at the celebrated yeshiva in Rouen. Vigdis' journey takes her from Narbonne across France, with a stay in Provence, and then across the Mediterranean – now alone, David has been killed by Crusaders – to Egypt, and then back again (bearing and losing children as she goes) to cross and recross the south of France and the north of Spain. (The endpapers of the book are helpful maps.)

This journey is so complicated that one of the opera's flaws is expository: we sometimes lose track of where Vigdis is in her travels. Opera Ballet Vlaanderen also made use of copious doubling, so that the panoramic cast was played by a very small number of singers. Clever, but it means that her father, husband, and maid keep reappearing in other roles, the same singers sometimes playing helping characters and blocking characters at other times. There is something thematic in that confusion, certainly, but there is also something bewildering. I felt at times that the opera The Convert was best experienced by someone who already knew the book: but of course I approached them in the opposite order.

In Hertmans' novel, the journey undertaken by Vigdis runs parallel to another undertaken in the present day by Stefan Hertmans. This to me, with my love of historical imagination, road trips, France, and the metaliterary, was the best aspect of the book. Vigdis' tale is full of pathos, bizarre incident, and truth stranger than fiction. Because the outline of her movements is well-documented: Vigdis and David were real people who really did make their improbable journey across much of the known world. Hertmans, becoming fascinated by the documentary evidence of this odyssey, sets out to retrace what he can of it by car and other 21st-century methods.

Hertmans' travels are more mundane: quicker, duller, dissatisfying. Only in a few places can he stand where Vigdis must have stood, touch stones she could have touched. One happens to be a village in Provence where he now makes a seasonal home: part of how he got fascinated by the story in the first place. He must bring to life both the medieval story and his own travels, and the gap between them.

The result is a thrilling narrative where mystery abounds in each section. Where will Vigdis end up, or will she be condemned to perpetual travel? Her life makes little sense to her &ndsah; but do any lives make more sense? Can lives altered by migration have a sense, or are they inherently broken and tragic? Can love conquer all? Can one change a fundamental identity like that of a religious community?

And for Hertmans, is it possible to see the past back through the alterations that a millennium brings? Can we ever understand directly the deeply foreign country that is proverbially the past?

Ultimately Hertmans reveals the documentation and inferences that allow us to know that Vigdis and David existed at all, fortuitous survivals of stray objects that traveled as far as those who carried them. The opera can't get into such meta-historical concerns. Henderickx instead focuses on the violent incidents that burst upon Vigdis' life, as opportunities for sensational scoring. But the energy of the central story comes through. As either book or opera, The Convert is a singularly impressive experience.

Hertmans, Stefan. The Convert. [De bekeerlinge, 2016.] Translated by David McKay. New York: Pantheon [Penguin Random House], 2019. PT 6466.18 .E76B4513