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THE CONVERSION by Aharon Appelfeld

THE CONVERSION

By Aharon Appelfeld

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 1998
ISBN: 0-8052-4153-1
Publisher: Schocken

First published in 1991, this provocative parable is the 12th novel to reach English from the internationally acclaimed author of such fiction as Badenheim 1939 (1980) and (most recently) The Iron Tracks (1998). Protagonist Karl HÅbner is an Austrian Jew who has, with his mother’s blessing, converted to Christianity in order to facilitate his advancement as a municipal official employed by the city of Neufeld. No sooner has Karl accepted congratulations at his “conversion ceremony,” though, than nagging reminders of his late parents and of his religious heritage begin to shake his resolve to settle smoothly into his chosen new life. His oldest friend, an earlier convert, exemplifies embittered unfulfillment. His “scandalous” Aunt Franzi, a former cabaret singer and actress—and a forthright “proud Jew and . . . woman of principle”—dies suddenly, a visit to her provincial hometown tellingly evoking Karl’s untroubled childhood. And, crucially, his memories of Gloria, the housemaid who nursed his parents during the last illness of each, compel him to seek her out. His reunion with Gloria, and his chastened gratitude for her devotion to his loved ones (“She had absorbed their lives fully while he was merely a drifter in their world”), unite the two and show Karl a pathway back to his origins when an injustice orchestrated by the government he serves (the abolition of his city’s Jewish market area) forces him to abandon the position he had coveted and won. He and Gloria return to the Ruthenian mountains to live simply, but they can—t escape the fate to which Karl had believed himself immune. Their story’s conclusion is swift, impersonal, and devastating. The weakness of The Conversion is its tendency toward dogmatic allegory (at times we suspect Appelfeld is jury-rigging a thinly fictionalized argument against assimilation into other cultures as opposed to accepting one’s native ethnicity). But its signal strength—his complex portrayal of a divided soul frustrated in its pursuit of goodness—once again confirms Appelfeld’s position as matchless dramatist of the intermingled burdens and rewards of Jewry in extremis.