A good friend mentions the word nostalgia and it leaves me thinking. Nostalgia, ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past’, at its root lie the meanings of returning home and pain; it also conveys a sense of loss and absence, and, in short hand, homesickness. Close to yearning and melancholy, but not the same, it can be bittersweet, not always bearing a sad connotation. A beautiful word, dense and deep, we cannot pronounce it with question marks or exclamations. In Portuguese, they have, besides, saudade, and in the neighbouring region of Galicia, in northwestern Spain, they talk often of morriña. A Galician friend tells me both saudade and morriña are more complex, richer in significance, and form part of the character of those peoples facing the Atlantic and forced to emigrate for centuries.
Although I have lived outside my country for a long time, nostalgia has never been in my vocabulary. The impulse to live a life of my own, in a different culture both Chinese and cosmopolitan, my frequent travels across Asia and Europe, all that set me in a forward motion that I embraced with enthusiasm, and this enthusiasm has not faded. Absorbing the new, learning at every step, the strange became familiar; and without losing my roots, more identities were being added in multiple layers. My world has thus expanded and, as I turn 50, I am aware of how larger still it can become. True, little that I left behind − except my family and friends − inspired me to look back, a string of failed sentimental relations, an encroaching working environment and a backward outlook. My country was becoming suffocating and I had to break for good.
However, just recently, I have come across an interview with the great writer Juan Marsé, and the mention of his early novel Últimas tardes con Teresa has instantly triggered memories of a time and place that I can properly call nostalgia. I read Últimas tardes con Teresa when adolescent, in the 1970s, during a summertime I spent with my cousin Miguel Angel at the house my aunt Trini had in the Andalusian village of Cazorla, the head village of the mountains that are our ancestral home. Her house was at the summit of the steep Cuesta del Carmen and you would reach it after a strenuous walk. I would read on a rocking chair in the serene afternoons and to rest my sight I would enjoy the scenery of whitewashed houses clinging on the slopes, the castle ruins, and a myriad wave of olives trees without end. My eldest cousin Mari, already in the university, would lend to us our first serious books, also on politics. She introduced Juan Marsé to me. In his novel I would encounter real personages and intricate sentimental relations in a society in transformation, the world of adults I was about to enter. And the reading was absorbing. This book marks a rite of passage for me.
During that time Miguel and I would also stay at the nearby village of Peal de Becerro, on the plains. There our aunt Felisa had a large house like a labyrinth and a courtyard with plants that lent fresh air and sweet fragrances. At the sacred time of la siesta, away from the blasting sun, the time stood still. Never in my life have I felt time passing so slowly, truly eternal. Children ought to respect the siesta like a religious precept. Silence in its pure state, nothing at all could be heard, inside or outside, in the village or the fields. And in those quiet afternoons we would read Federico García Lorca’s Poeta en Nueva York and Miguel Hernández’s El rayo que no cesa. Our common cousin Pepe, who left us all too soon, had a library entirely devoted to Juan Ramón Jiménez, his academic pursuit. I would slip in like in a forbidden place. Since then, this laureate poet has been wrapped in a veil of mystery, always enchanting me. I know my aunt keeps the books untouched as her son Pepe left them.
Why I delved in those thoughts and came so vividly to me? I do not know. Our true country is our childhood, a saying goes, and maybe that is why I went back to that sunny period of my life. It is also said, with good reason, that our country is our language. To be sure, my readings during those Andalusian afternoons have much to do with who I am today. I am the same boy, reading books that leave a mark, discovering new worlds, and for me time tended to pass slowly. Only the stillness, the silence, would never be the same.
Nostalgia belongs to the realm of emotions and this is a land plowed by the arts, the music, the cinema and the literature, chiefly novels and poetry. An area too large for me to inquire in, I look up at my library and I search only for the books of memoires. Not all memoires are made of nostalgia, although there may be nostalgic episodes. Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, where he records his recollections of the World War I, is not, at any rate, a book on nostalgia, there is no missing of the trenches. But memoires truly nostalgic are among the best books I have read. Stephan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, stands out and it is an indispensable reading. It conjures up a bygone era, a cultured, literary and free Europe, with no passports, that was to be shattered and changed forever by the rise of the Nazi regime. The nostalgia here is more poignant because The World of Yesterday is also a farewell; Zweig, a delicate, sensitive soul, took his own life in desperation before finishing the book. This is a testament we shall not forget.
There are cities that are made up of nostalgia and perhaps none more so than Istanbul. Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City is profoundly imbued with nostalgia for a city that has changed beyond recognition and whose remains – except the tourist landmarks − are on the verge of disappearing. Pamuk masterly captures his own longings mixed with the literary life of the city, and we appreciate the attachment for the vernacular architecture and also the derelict, the city’s symbols, the pride and the way of life. The synapses with the demonstrators at Taksim Square today are better understood in this light. Yet I don’t remember Pamuk mentioning the word nostalgia not even once. He insists his memoire is a melancholic journey and offers another word: hüzün, a Turkish word of Arabic roots equivalent to melancholy ‘that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity; veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort…’ We understand hüzün is ‘a state of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is negating’ which is central to the spiritual, cultural and everyday life of Istanbul.
‘The more one travels, the more complex one’s sense of nostalgia becomes’, writes Joseph Brodsky in his essay A Place as Good as Any, collected in the volume On Grief and Reason. Out of context we might think these are the words of a traveler, but Brodsky is an exile who writes with the nostalgia of those who cannot return. Truly nostalgic is his unforgettable In a Room and a Half, included in his volume of essays Less than One. A moving tribute to his parents and his old Leningrad, whereas all the perversion of the system is also present, the anti-Semitism, the claustrophobia, the meanness of the neighbours informing on each other.
Those acquainted with China quickly learn the powerful associations attached to the expression ‘going home’, 回家 Huí jiā. And anyone who has ever read traditional Chinese poetry in translation will realize that nostalgia is one of the main topics or subject matter, even a genre on its own. For James J.Y. Liu, the late Stanford professor, one of the most distinguished scholars of Chinese literature, the reasons are varied. The greatest poets were usually scholar-officials that took up positions away of their place of origin; the vast size of the country with difficult communications; the contrast between the highly cultural atmosphere of the cities and the harsh conditions in the countryside or the border stations; the political conditions of the time, with frequent wars, revolutions and social upheavals; and the importance attached to the family in traditional Chinese culture.
If we could single out one Chinese poem above all, a poem learned by Chinese school children for centuries, we would surely chose the following verses by the Tang dynasty poet Li Po (Li Bai, 701-762), Still Night Thoughts, whose theme is actually nostalgia, here in translation by Burton Watson:
Moonlight in front of my bed −
I took it for frost on the ground!
I lift my eyes to watch the mountain moon,
Lower them and dream of home.
I would venture to say that nostalgia is also prevalent in the great tradition of landscape painting in China starting from the 10th century and throughout the dynastic periods. The long distance suggested; the small size of the solitary inhabitants in a thatched hut, or traveling among cliffs, mountains and rivers, crossing impossible bridges or drifting in humble boats; the flocks of flying wild geese − a convention on nostalgia − or the subtle expression of the brushstroke, all these elements are evocative of nostalgia.
Is there a science of nostalgia to help us dissect it, understand it or codify it? I hope not. I already advanced that it belongs to the realm of emotions and as such is best dealt with by the arts. Someone may argue that anthropologists or psychologists may have something to say. I don’t want to hear. What about history? History is the science that studies the past, but it is not a science on nostalgia. The nearest I have sensed a historic account as evocative of nostalgia, if somewhat forcibly, is in the extraordinary book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt. It is unique as it also covers the intellectual, social and, I would say, emotional dimensions of an historical period, highlighting the influence of the cinema and mass media, especially radio and television, themselves catalysts of nostalgia. This is a history where I can identify my parents as protagonists.
Nostalgia as a political device in the hands of demagogues is well known, and most effective as a ferment of nationalism: Nostalgia against a perceived, anticipated loss; or nostalgia for an imagined past that has never been. In my reading list I have two books. El bucle melancólico by Jon Juaristi is meant to deconstruct the fabrications of the Basque nationalism in recent times. And a wider study on collective nostalgia, The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm, the late Cambridge historian, always as controversial as he is illuminating.
As my reflections unfold, I realise I am not immune to nostalgia. But my nostalgia is closer in time and place. Having my new roots in Asia, and having witnessed its unparalleled transformation, sentiments of nostalgia would arise: cherished memories of the old Kai Tak airport that the airplanes dangerously approached flying between the buildings and the sea; or the Peking of the bicycles.
Away of the picturesque, nostalgia takes on a bigger dimension and darker tone. A nostalgia bordering in agony is thrust violently upon me at the speed and the scale of the changes around me: the metamorphosis of my neighbourhood, Causeway Bay, in Hong Kong Island, where luxury shops have replaced my stationary shop or my cozy family-run restaurant. Or my beloved Hollywood Road, where dull and noisy bars have taken over antique dealers and art galleries. Above all, I miss the many friends who have left. And going further we can even talk about minimum core values or basic manners and conventions that have vanished. The precise definition of the Oxford English Dictionary we started with reminds me that I do suffer ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past’, and a sense of loss undermines my attachment and identity. Nostalgia is then more pervasive than I thought; it is an alarm, a warning against unconscious, shallow living. I am confronted with remembering the world of yesterday or to live a present I like less. Shall I wear armour to protect my emotions? If I cannot recognize myself in my surroundings, who am I?