Lucy Greaves
The end, the beginning
DOOR Tatiana Salem Levy
30-11-2013

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.

All translations from Lucy Greaves
The end, the beginning
30-11-13

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.

17-11-13

It’s really cold outside. Mist covers the buildings and a fine rain is falling. A perfect day for staying in my hotel room reading Juan Pablo Villalobos’ new novel. But I promised to write a chronicle a day and if I don’t go to meet Eduardo, the Inquisition expert, I won’t have any material. I’m not really an inventor of stories. Without experience, I can’t write. So, if I don’t want to write a whole text about the innovative activity of reading a book in a hotel room, I have to face the drizzle and the cold, the worst enemies of people who grew up in the tropics.

Without an umbrella or a hood, I set off in search of the train station. Google tells me it’s nine minutes away, but it takes me sixteen. If I didn’t get lost, I’d be a different person. I check which platform I should head for and, once I’m on the train, I feel at home again. If I could, I’d spend my whole life on a train, in silence, observing the world going past outside and the passengers who get on and off. Between The Hague and Amsterdam the land is flat; the horizon, stretched taut.

A train journey is far better than a session on a psychiatrist’s couch. I revisit my childhood, imagine better days, remember my dead, tell them things I don’t tell anyone else. Logical time becomes the time between two cities, which goes by unexpectedly quickly.

I had my phone on silent, and it’s only when I get to Amsterdam that I see a message from Eduardo: he’s fifteen minutes late. I take the opportunity to have a coffee and buy a copy of Le Monde. Fifteen minutes later, another message: Maybe you can find a restaurant and wait for me there? I start to get nervous; in my tropical mind, Europeans are never late. But I’m still hopeful. Eduardo is going to appear and tell me everything he knows about Salom Salem, detail by detail. I’m going to return home with a nearly-formed novel tucked under my arm.

It’s raining in Amsterdam as well, and for that reason I go into the first place I find, The Doors, a typical tourist trap. On my iPhone I listen to Villagers, who won me over with their show yesterday. The album is aptly named Awayland. That’s where I live, in that remote land, away from home.

I send Eduardo a text to give him directions and then order a lemon and ginger tea, quickly followed by a piece of apple tart. When I look at my mobile again, almost an hour has slipped by. No message from Eduardo in the forty-five minutes that I’ve been in the bar. I decide to call, but his phone is off, or he hasn’t got a signal. What if he ran out of battery?

The problem with waiting is that it’s an endless spiral. We only stop waiting when the other person arrives. If that person doesn’t arrive, we never stop. There’s always a doubt; if I leave now, he might appear. I decide to wait another fifteen minutes. Then fifteen more, fifteen more, fifteen more. At five o’clock there’s no option but to accept the evidence and get a train back to The Hague. I can’t risk missing this evening’s reading.

On the way back, the ‘psychoanalysis session’ turns into an imaginary fight where I call Eduardo all the names I can think of. I went to great lengths for the sake of a story, which turned out not to exist. The bastard left me without a chronicle. I went searching for the best story and ended up with nothing.

Little by little I come to terms with the wasted day, convincing myself that the past is a land that ought to remain distant. It’s enough to catch a glimpse of it from time to time and then carry on. When I’m ready, Taco, the translator, knocks on my door: he was wandering around The Hague when he happened upon Spinoza’s grave. You can’t leave without seeing it, he says, looking at once enthusiastic and deathly pale, as if he’d seen Spinoza himself, not just his tomb.

Everything is relative
16-11-13

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.

 

A book, what book?
15-11-13

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.

Borders of the past
04-11-13

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.