THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN a convert and an apostate is the difference between selling out and selling your soul. For Aharon Appelfeld, the sin of the apostate is not just turning away from faith, but also turning a blind eye to injustice and cruelty. In his newly translated novel, The Conversion, the celebrated Israeli author transforms the tale of a Jewish convert to Christianity living at the edge of the 20th century into a parable examining the consequence of apostasy.
Appelfeld knows the cost of indifference in the face of bigotry. At age 9 he lost his family in a Nazi concentration camp and narrowly escaped with his life. Although The Conversion deals obliquely with the psychological fallout of the Holocaust, Appelfeld quite deliberately sets his tale in prewar Europe. For the everyman of his morality play, he chooses Karl Hübner, an Austrian Jew who has switched to Christianity in order to advance his career in the municipal government of the small city of Neufeld. While he rises to the rank of secretary, Karl's stubborn agnosticism relegates him to the periphery of both the Jewish and gentile communities.
Among his few remaining childhood friends are Freddy, a provincial physician, Martin, a lawyer, and Hochhut, an industrialist. Like Karl, they have traded their religion, and the traditions of their people, for worldly success. Though they've grown wealthy, the men have also become morally bankrupt: Freddy is cuckolded by an ambitious wife; Martin is a twice-divorced alcoholic; and Hochhut is a self-loathing anti-Semite.
Karl, too, has paid the price for his complacency. Without the spiritual strength to resist, he can combat the pervasive anti-Semitism in city hall only with memos. He drinks constantly, picks pointless fights with the peasants who regularly insult him, and makes frequent and unsatisfying excursions to the town brothel. With austere prose and relentlessly dreary description, Appelfeld makes a convincing case that existence without conviction is vulgar and ultimately futile.
As Karl's indifference proves increasingly untenable, Appelfeld pushes his parable to its inevitable ethical crisis. In the interest of progress, Neufeld's petite bourgeoisie demands that the town's commercial district be cleared and the old Jewish merchants turned out. Trapped in a spiritual catch-22, Karl must choose between permanent exile and selling off his last chance at redemption.
Although The Conversion takes place in the early 20th century, Appelfeld doesn't waste time setting the historical stage. Instead he lets the story drift into the realm of allegory, transforming Karl into an example of the universal struggle between complicity and resistance. Nevertheless, history does give The Conversion particular moral urgency. Seen in the shadow of things to come, Karl Hübner stands on the precipice of the abyss, and his decision takes on a terrible significance. It's Appelfeld's quiet but insistent reminder that in the smallest battles, the greatest wars are lost.