I was sitting on the sofa when I noticed my father looking at me sidelong, as if discovering something in me for the first time. I asked if he was all right, and he said: wait a minute. He disappeared down the dark corridor of the house where he lives to this day and returned holding an encyclopaedia. He held out the heavy volume, open on the page he wanted to show me: that’s your face. I looked at the portrait of Spinoza and didn’t even hesitate: no it’s not! At twelve years old I would never agree with such nonsense. How could I look like that big-nosed man with sunken eyes and hair that resembled a wig?
A few years later, I found out who that man was and, immediately, I started reading him. Then it didn’t matter if he was handsome or not, I loved repeating that, yes, I was the spitting image of Baruch Spinoza.
Over time, I realised that my father’s observation had some truth in it: Spinoza and I shared our origins, we were both descendants of Portuguese Jews who had fled the Inquisition. His family had settled in Amsterdam. Mine, in Izmir, where my mother’s father and my father’s father shared a house. They were great friends, but they emigrated at different times and eventually lost touch, until their children met by chance, at a meeting of left-wing militants opposed to the military dictatorship in Brazil.
There was a novel in that story. That wasn’t the novel I wrote, but I didn’t stray far. In my first book, I told the story of the house key that Sephardic Jews handed down from generation to generation in the hope of returning to Portugal.
My mother’s family passed down more than just the key. There was also an engraving, dating from the 17th century – Spinoza’s century – of a rabbi from the Portuguese community in Amsterdam. That engraving was handed from firstborn to firstborn until it reached my grandfather.
So perhaps my relationship with the philosopher was more than a simple resemblance? Perhaps he and my ancestor knew each other? Perhaps they were friends? Or enemies? Perhaps there’s a tale of blood that binds the two together? How and why did that rabbi swap Amsterdam for Izmir? Could it have something to do with Spinoza?
Almost twenty years ago, my mother found the same engraving in the Jewish museum in Amsterdam. When I first went travelling around Europe, before starting university, she told me: don’t forget to visit our ancestor. I promised I would, but, dazzled by the coffee shops, Van Gogh and Rembrandt, I ended up leaving the Jewish museum for the last day. Only I didn’t know it was Yom Kippur, and the museum was closed. When I got to Bruges I called my mother to tell her I had, sadly, failed to meet the rabbi.
Two years later she died. My grandfather wasn’t around any more either, and the story ended up getting lost in a distant past. Now, at the precise moment that I sit down to write my first chronicle for Crossing Border, the story reappears, clear, fresh, as if I could still hear my mother’s voice saying: Go there.
I open my email and confirm the date of my arrival in Amsterdam: 13th of November. I write to the organisers to ask if they’re happy for me to get to The Hague on the 14th, when the festival starts. There’s some business I need to attend to in Amsterdam, I say. Because every time I sit down in front of my computer, some story from the past whispers in my ear, asking to be told, as if saying: You don’t go anywhere without first returning.