Being back in Europe is like coming home. After more than three years of living in Australia, I had not forgotten the pull Europe has on me, however, it had become fainter in its intensity. As the plane descended towards Schiphol Airport, it felt like I was coming home. Then over the next few days as I wandered through the streets and grachten of Amsterdam, with various friends and family members, the scents, sounds and scenes of the city enveloped me, filling me with heady and intoxicating memories and emotions.
While travelling through Europe I am reading Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad (in English), which a friend lent to me. I am rarely at a loss to describe my feelings about a book and to give an overview of what it is about. The last book that left me equally at a loss was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. With Sepharad I once again struggle to explain competently why the book is so great and what it is ultimately about. Potentially contentious for some, I would have to say that I would put Sepharad above Shantaram. Maybe it’s due to the timeliness of my reading the book, during my return to Europe after a notable absence, while travelling and as I once more immerse myself in the history and culture of Europe which I have missed so much. They are such vastly different books, yet both are equally thought provoking and inspirational. Sepharad has launched me once again into the literary world of Europe, reminding me of books and authors I have loved and had somewhat forgotten about during my sojourn on the other side of the word. My knowledge of the culture and history of this part of the continent is suddenly being refreshed, and the cities of Europe, many of which I have lived in and grown attached too over the years are once again focal points for me.
The book is an epic journey through time of history, culture, passions and literature laced with the nostalgia experienced by many travellers returning to and yearning for their homeland from far-flung places. There are loose threads evident throughout the book but many of the characters stories stand alone, linked simply by a shared yearning for their homeland. Muñoz Molina lives and breathes history, bringing memories and characters to life in this thought provoking book.
As one of Muñoz Molina’s characters says, several days before leaving on a journey the traveler has already left in their mind. Similarly the day before leaving Australia I sat at my desk at school, watching the clock, already tuned out and ready to leave. Luckily for me, and my students, I did not have to teach many classes on that last day as my distraction was palpable. Like Muñoz Molina’s character I too had already left the school and Australia in my mind.
The excitement of travelling back to loved places can hypnotize you, as Muñoz Molina aptly wrote the pull of return is like ‘the strong current of time that carries you back at a speed greater even than that of the car on the flat straight highway’. Memories are indeed a strong trigger and as I walked through Amsterdam and later sat on the train to my grandmothers village in Germany with the constant stream of travellers entering and exiting, each engrossed with their own agendas and lives, memories came flooding back. The pull of return and the transition between languages and dialects so familiar, yet at the same time slightly foreign to me after years of solely speaking English enveloped me in memories of my childhood and adolescence in these places, and of people familiar and loved.
Muñoz Molina’s book is both nostalgic and new for me, a piece of edible literature which I find hard to put down and which sees me rereading and savouring certain passages over and over for their beautifully written images, metaphors and language. The English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden is superb, I can only imagine how beautifully written the original is in Spanish. If I ever learn Spanish well I will re read it in its original form. Reading Sepharad has also encouraged me to write again, something I have struggled with over the past few years, neither finding inspiration or the right words. But through Muñoz Molina’s book and while travelling through Europe I am inspired to write again. It almost feels as if I have emerged from a cocoon that has been incasing me for a long time, I feel emotions and passions returning that I had forgotten I possessed.
I have just finished reading the last few pages of the book while sitting on my grandmother’s balcony in Germany on a balmy July evening, accompanied by a glass of red wine. I cannot even feign to try and do this wonderful book justice, but I have tried to explain in some coherent manner why I love this book and how I related with it personally.
Reading it during a crossroads in my own life and on my return to Europe after a notable absence has been both a balm as well as an awakening of senses. Will the next stage of my life be governed by the passions I have constrained for so many years or will my pragmatic logic continue to persevere?
It is now so dark outside that I can only make out the silhouettes of the plants on the balcony and the peaked roofs of houses beyond the garden. It is time to finish up and retire for the evening. For those literary, culture, history and travelling enthusiasts, Sepharad is an absolute MUST! Just make sure to read it slowly, savouring each and every word.