"The ceremony was short, subdued, and without ostentation. Only afterward, in the church's reception room, did the voices return to normal. Wine, homemade pastries, and sweets were served." It is in this simple way that Aharon Appelfeld's The Conversion opens, and the novel to come will be as short, subdued and without ostentation as the beginning three lines. In the midst of this deceptively unadorned prose, however, lurks the seed of an almost unimagineably horrible tale, which Appelfeld manages to recount in completely nonjudgmental strokes. Ultimately, it's clear why Appelfeld has been called a "worthy successor to Kafka" with his surreal, yet plausible, plots. Though the legacy of the Holocaust is never explicit, The Conversion often seems a device forcing the reader to question reality, and our ability to believe (or ignore) its ramifications.
The novel opens about two generations before the Holocaust in the Austrian village of Neufeld. There, a young civil servant named Karl has just converted from Judaism to Christianity, thereby following in the footsteps of almost all of the Jews in the city. His reasoning is that he wishes to be promoted to municipal secretary, a position he has been working toward for 17 years but also a position which his faith has prevented him from achieving. Christian sentiment, however, scorns the newly converted as Jewish at the core in spite of any baptism ceremony they may have undergone. Karl, while achieving his desired post, begins to receive criticism from members of the community.
To complicate matters, a woman named Gloria, whom Karl's mother took in when Gloria was 18 and Karl was four, returns to the village, and Karl falls desperately in love with her. As rumors of their love fly around the village, Karl and Gloria must flee in search of safer havens. Reaching Karl's mother's native village, the couple settles in a country home and prepares for a better life. Karl, however, begins to show signs that he is still sympathetic to his Jewish roots, and in spite of their Edenic country home, the pair will soon have to confront a hellish tragedy.
Remarkably, Appelfeld has succeeded in creating a novel without a single like-able character. Karl's selfishness, his sexual attraction to his former nanny, his willingness to do anything for his promotion; all of these characteristics repel us from him, but Appelfeld never tells us any redeeming qualities Karl might have had. We cannot even sympathize with Gloria as a possible victim of Karl's desires. Appelfeld never tells us if Gloria returns Karl's love, and in the end she comes off as being simply weak. Strangely, Gloria possesses an almost robotic tendency to observe the Jewish traditions she learned while living with Karl's parents, though she herself is not Jewish. Meanwhile, everyone else in the novel seems just as cold and selfish as Karl, or perhaps just as desperate, and so as readers we are left hanging without a single character we want to latch on to.
The issues raised by every page scream for resolutions, some which are long in coming, some which never come. What is the nature of a person's religion? Is it possible that religious identity can define your entire being? Can you escape from your past? Call them heavy, but Appelfeld merely suggests these questions without hammering them into our consciousness, enabling us to swallow them all in measured doses without feeling stifled. His prose is invariably elegant and devoid of strong emotion, compelling us to distance ourselves from the situation at hand.
In the end, the great tragedy of The Conversion is that we, as readers, find it so difficult to feel sorry for the characters in spite of their monstrously tragic lives. Rather than the passionate emotion one would expect in a story of conversion and cultural abandonment, The Conversion leaves the reader unaffected, apathetic in spite of the moral importance of the issues at hand. In a way, Appelfeld is teaching by example. By convincing the reader that conversion is no more than an economic transaction, and humanity characterized by little more than greed and self-interest, he shows the ease with which we can be seduced. It is simple to see how our lack of feeling towards the characters can be translated into the lack of empathy for another culture, race or religion that allows atrocities like the Holocaust to happen. It seems to have been Appelfeld's intent to lull us into a state of complete emotional suspension. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, it seems that we commonly ask ourselves how the Holocaust could have ever happened. Appelfeld reminds us why it was possible. And as dark as the issues he raises may be, they never fail to come across with a devastating subtlety not necessarily found in many post-Holocaust reflections.