I wake up in the middle of a nightmare: my father’s been sent to prison and is telling me he’s going to kill himself. I try to convince him otherwise, but he won’t budge.
I’m still pretty spaced out from jetlag and, even once I’m up, my mind keeps wandering through the realm of random images. My father’s voice comes and goes. Could the dream be revenge for his having compared me to Spinoza? Or is it guilt hovering over me for having publicly disagreed with him?
In the corridor I bump into Daphne, the beautiful writer who doesn’t like leaving the house. I don’t know how to behave around her. Should I remain silent? Back off so as not to disturb her solitude? After all, she made it clear in her first chronicle that she doesn’t like social interaction. But she’s the one who strikes up a conversation, saying bluntly that I look tired. Has she seen into my nightmare as well? Has she discovered that I arrested my father and made him kill himself?
While Daphne eats a bread roll with salami and I eat yoghurt and granola, we talk about our lives and find coincidences and differences. Then she announces that she wants to visit the Prison Gate Museum, to learn about its stories of political conspiracies, the punishment of prisoners, torture. At that precise moment, a memory bubbles up: the last thing I read before going to bed was an article about the conviction of some Brazilian politicians involved in a big corruption scam. Thanks to Daphne, everything becomes clear: it’s nothing to do with guilt, or revenge, much less to do with Spinoza.
Whenever I meet anyone from Eastern Europe, I end up thinking about how relative things are. While in Brazil in the 1960s and 70s, Communism was synonymous with freedom – or at least liberation from the awful military dictatorship – in Slovakia, where Monika comes from, Communism was the dictatorship. Freedom was making it to the airport or crossing the border.
Many of those recently convicted politicians were part of the resistance in Brazil, they dreamed of and fought for a better world. My father too, and that’s why I was born in Lisbon, in exile. Back in my room, after the conversation with Daphne, I give a sigh of relief to think that my father gave up political activism a long time ago. Prison is an unfounded fear which only appears in dreams.
I pick up a map of the city at reception, ask for tips on where I should visit, wait while a kind soul draws the perfect route and, when I step out into the street, I shove the map into my coat pocket and set off aimlessly, paying no attention to street names, sure that in the end I won’t know how to get back to the hotel.
Chance leads me to the Prison Gate Museum. Inside, I glance at torture instruments, interrogation chairs, texts explaining the methods of punishment used centuries ago: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. All in all, the museum is pretty unappealing, but there is one good thing about it: it leads me to Caravaggio’s painting “Boy Bitten by a Lizard”, which is displayed in the gallery next door. Of all the artists in the world, he’s the only one who can make me travel miles to see a single painting.
Once back at my computer, I realise that I’d forgotten all about Spinoza and didn’t go looking for him as I’d intended. And it occurs to me that travelling, like writing, is exactly that: forgetting about some things so as to discover others.
I’ve just got an email from my Portuguese friend in Amsterdam, saying that today he met a literature professor who specialises in the Inquisition. He knows everything about the Jews in Holland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and has written a paper on the rabbis who visited the country from other corners of the world. He suggests we meet tomorrow afternoon. He’s going to tell me everything he knows about Salom Salem.