Spinoza’s tombstone lies in the grounds of a church opposite our hotel. The only sound this dark morning is made by our footsteps on the autumn leaves covering the grass. Taco woke me up before six to go and visit the philosopher’s grave with him and Lucy. The philosopher’s name, Benedicti Spinoza, appears among the red and yellow of the leaves, as if someone had got up even earlier and swept the surface of the marble slab.
I’m so tired that it takes me a while to grasp the change: Baruch turned into Benedicti? Did Spinoza become a Catholic after he was expelled from Judaism? Why the hell is he buried in a church? I look around me and can’t see any other tombs there. Not only converted, but respected?
It’s amazing that he’s so close to the hotel, Lucy says.
A while ago, I came to the conclusion that the act of writing entails a certain amount of witchcraft. Every time I start a text, mysterious events lead me close to its plot, as if the real world conspires in favour of the imaginary. It’s no different this time. Ever since I sat down to think about my first chronicle, everything has drawn me closer to Spinoza and Salom Salem. Everything, in some way, leads me to the past.
When I started writing my second novel, part of which takes place in Corsica, I was also doing a post-doctorate on W. G. Sebald, and I was insanely pleased when, walking through Paris, I found a book by the German author precisely about… Corsica. It seemed too weird to be true, as if it were meant especially for me. And now, standing in front of Spinoza’s grave, My thoughts return to Sebald: he was the one who led me to discover the city we’re going to at dawn, in a bus crammed with musicians, writers and translators.
Before I read Austerlitz, Antwerp for me was just a name devoid of meaning. That novel made me go in search of more information about the city, its foundation, its inhabitants, its commercial importance. More than that, Antwerp came to occupy an emotive place in my life. After all, it’s the city where the narrator of Sebald’s novel met Austerlitz for the first time, at the station, waiting for a train that would take him far away from a nameless affliction. An affliction the meaning of which he would only understand much later: at the age of five, to escape Nazism, Austerlitz was sent by train to England and handed over to his adoptive parents. Before he discovered the truth about his personal history, the character would wander around train stations, not knowing why.
The past is like that: unsaid words that surround us and insist on making themselves present in some strange way. Ghosts that frighten us with the intention of driving us forwards. First, the shock. Then, the questions and, with them, the desire to tear down borders, to cross boundaries, to go in search of the unknown. And, with that restlessness, writing itself, the search for meanings, the road that sometimes leads you to the place you expected to arrive, and just as often forks, deceives, deviates, offering no definite answers. A borderless adventure, which, in its very freedom, contains the pleasure and pain of its own existence.
On my way home, I can’t say I’ve got a fully-formed novel in my head. I’ve never written a book in less than two or three years. It takes time for a story to mature. I don’t even know if I’ll finish it. But, while I was still at the airport, waiting for my plane, there was a kind of certainty in my solitary smile: I was leaving the Netherlands with more questions than when I arrived, and, above all, with more enthusiasm, sure that I had crossed borders and experienced unforgettable things there.