The figurative language of Stefan Hertmans

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors from Stefan Hertmans….

Someone — I don’t remember who — told me about the novel The Convert, by Stefan Hertmans. They must have praised it highly because it’s not the type of book I normally would have read.

In eleventh-century France, a young woman from a prosperous Christian family, falls in love with  a rabbi’s son and yeshiva student. To be together, the couple flee the city, and are pursued by her father’s knights. In a small town further south, they find brief happiness — and have three children — before facing a wave of anti-Semitism with the onset of the First Crusade.

What intrigued me most was the way in which Stefan Hertmans was able to weave back and forth in time — from the 11th century, when the couple lived, to the 21st when the author was conducting his research. Unbelievably enough, the story is based on truth.

In addition to being an indefatigable researcher, Stefan Hertmans also has a fine eye and ear for figurative language. Here are my favourite examples:

  • The tumbledown houses up on the heights —battered by gales, the mistral and the tramontane [north wind]— stood with their windowless backs to the wind, so that they could hold out for centuries.
  • The surviving structures have, for ages now, leaned against their narrow, heavy fronts like graybeards resting on their canes.
  • The congregation sings slightly off-key, a time-honored mark of sincere religious faith.
  • Above the tall cliff, a buzzard slowly circles. The silence seems ominous, as if deep in the earth I can hear time rumbling.
  • The room where they sleep that night, on a sack of straw, stirs and whispers with mice, rats and dormice.
  • I face three hundred kilometers of black, deserted highway, staring into passing headlights as if a film’s opening credits were going on forever.
  • The sky is spotless, but over the line of hills, a strange, enormous cloud forms, resembling an oyster umbilical pink and dark purple veined and hollow.
  • Hate clenches like a muscle in the heart of the community.
  • The banners hang still, as if spellbound; late butterflies flit through the dry oak trees.
  • On days of hard frost, the smoke from the oak fires curls out of the old chimney as if in a dream.
  • Two fighter jets tear through the sky with a deafening roar; disoriented birds flutter around in circles like confetti for a moment before flying onward.
  • I walk the whole length of the Corniche….where young boys sell cotton candy in inflated plastic bags, which they hang from rods as if flying transparent fish from a cord.
  • This fragment is a duty monolith, a rough mass of uncompromising sandstone, a heap of hot rubble whose angular persistence says more about the indifference of history than any words I can find.
  • At the same time, she is more aware than ever that she will never again be truly safe anywhere — as if she’s living on a raft that is drifting toward a waterfall.
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