Conditions are unfavourable: it’s gone ten at night, and I never work after seven. I need to finish the chronicle by tomorrow morning and I still don’t know where to start. I wanted to write about The Hague, but I haven’t seen anything here apart from the hotel, a theatre lobby and an Indonesian restaurant. I could talk about my translators, the other chroniclers and the festival organisers, but they’re all too nice to turn into characters. All that’s left, then, is to do what will seem obvious to anyone who read my first chronicle: to describe what happened in Amsterdam.
It’s one pm when I come out of the train station and find myself in the city under a mellow autumn sun. I look left and right and immediately recognise the small buildings, the bicycles, the exceptionally tall people. Pulling my suitcase along, I head for the house of the Portuguese friend who’s going to put me up for the night and, on the way, I become convinced I could happily live here.
I don’t have long, so I eat a quick salad and hail a taxi: To the Jewish museum, please. When I give my ticket to the man on the door he warns me: You’d better go to the Portuguese synagogue first, it closes at four. To be honest, I wasn’t planning on visiting it, but it would be rude to ignore his suggestion and I end up having a quick look around. I don’t regret it.
Half an hour later, just as I’m going back into the museum, a woman approaches me to ask if I can help with a survey. She wants to know where I came from, how old I am and why I’m there. I hesitate between telling her the truth or giving a quick, banal answer so as to not delay the meeting with my ancestor any longer. I go for the first option, and see her eyes well up. She was expecting an answer like all the others and suddenly she’s faced with a story that has a body, a smell, a real presence.
She explains how the museum is laid out and I head straight for the second floor, where they keep all the works dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. I look at the paintings and engravings and patiently read the accompanying texts, because, deep down, despite feeling excited, I want to postpone the long-awaited moment. Imagination has little room for disappointment.
There he is, in a glass display table, identical, the same engraving that my grandfather inherited, with the same long beard, the same cloth wrapped around his tower-shaped hairdo. Salom Salem was born and died in Turkey – contrary to what I’d thought – and came to Amsterdam in 1652 with the aim of getting his book printed. I wasn’t expecting that: A book? What book?
I go back downstairs and start talking again to the woman from the museum, who suggests I go to the information centre. I’m greeted by a very nice young guy who looks in the archives for any information about Salom. All he discovers is that he was a rabbi from Adrianopolis (later, Google reveals that there’s a city with the same name in the south of Brazil). Frustrated by the lack of material, he gives me two phone numbers and adds: Have you been to the Portuguese synagogue? They’ve got a lot of material from that period. If you dig around, you might find a copy of that book. If, that is, it ever got printed…
I look at the clock, it’s half past four, the synagogue will already have closed. Tomorrow I’m heading off to The Hague and I hadn’t planned to return to Amsterdam. It’s always like this: I go looking for answers and come back with more questions. In a second, the possibilities multiply. When this happens it’s the first sign of a novel in the making. Yes, I think, a novel. A man leaves Turkey for Holland in the middle of the seventeenth century, crosses borders, goes on a long journey to get his book printed and have his face immortalised in an engraving that, many years later, ends up in a house in Rio de Janeiro – it seems like an interesting plot. Not to mention, of course, the hypothesis that Salom Salem might have met Spinoza.
And speaking of Spinoza, I also stood face to face with a portrait of him. Sorry, Dad, but we don’t look anything like each other.
I’ve just learnt that Spinoza died in The Hague. Who knows, maybe tomorrow I’ll wander around the city in search of him.