It feels timely for Norwegian historian and biographer Ivo de Figueiredo’s postcolonial family chronicle to be published in English on the eve of Brexit. A Stranger at My Table is de Figueiredo’s autobiographical account of a family history that spans two centuries and four continents, and the result is an ambitious amalgam; an exploration of a family ‘caught in the half-life of empires’, as well as a personal memoir detailing de Figueiredo’s turbulent relationship with his father Xavier.
The author, born in Bamble in the inlands of eastern Norway to a Norwegian mother and Goanese father, was never bothered by the fact that he had brown skin in a country that in the 60s and 70s was predominantly white. What de Figueiredo struggled with was the contradiction between his wild black curls and his old-fashioned, Norwegian second name ‘Bjarne’. ‘People do not fear the unknown’, Ivo Bjarne de Figueiredo writes early on in the book, ‘they fear what they think they know. My exotic otherness must have effected my classmate’s perception of me, but it was just that; vaguely exotic, indefinable. The name Bjarne, on the other hand, stood out like a sore thumb.’ He did not struggle with being different as much as he did with his obvious indefinability.
This turns out to be the book’s most persistent theme, as de Figueiredo’s family is as wide-ranging as the empire they served in the first half of the 20th century. As Goans living in Portuguese East-Africa under a British protectorate, they were not treated as slaves or servants like the native Africans; the loyal Goanese functionaries were held in high regard by the British and Portuguese, and therefore ended up identifying with their oppressive colonial masters.
In addition to being a thorough researcher, de Figueiredo is also an excellent prose writer (his acclaimed two-volume biography of Henrik Ibsen was published in English earlier this year) and he paints a vivid, sunlit picture of his ancestors and all the different countries they could never quite call home. The author provides the reader with detailed information about the political and historical circumstances of his family’s migration, from Goa in western India, to Zanzibar, Kenya, London, Burnely and Boston.
One of the siblings, de Figueiredo’s father Xavier, ended up in Bamble, Norway. And although the book stretches far and wide in search of the author’s roots, at heart A Stranger at My Table is an exploration of the father-son relationship and of whether it was the family’s colonial past that made both the author and his father feel restless and homeless in their peaceful lives in eastern Norway.
De Figueiredo’s father grew up on Zanzibar, whose architecture was drawn by John Sinclair ‘based on his notions of oriental architecture’ – even the exoticism of the African island was carefully modelled by the colonial masters. His father ‘simply is who he is’, de Figueiredo writes, ‘Xavier Hugo Ian Peter de Figueiredo. Born in East Africa in an Arab sultanate under British rule, he has both English and Portuguese names, has been baptized into the Catholic faith, and had a complexion that bears witness to his Indian Subcontinent roots.’ Almost 30 years later, Xavier’s Norwegian bride-to-be wrote home to her parents about her coming husband, hoping that ‘our children won’t ask where their father comes from…’
The family’s tangled, complicated roots, together with the political collapse and uprisings that took place when the British empire finally crumbled, essentially made the de Figueiredos homeless in a shifting world, caught between a romantic dream of their long-lost Indian homeland and their uncomfortable position between an almighty colonial power and its subjects: ‘The empires that had created them had gone and now they were left standing among the colonial ruins under the scorching sun.’
The family kept in frequent touch through letters, photographs, homemade films and boxes filled with food (de Figueiredo calls this long-lasting correspondence ‘ the Curry Triangle.’) And yet the triangle could not prevent Xavier from feeling rootless, restless and out of place. The intensity of his frustration rose out of control, and soon he became abusive towards his wife. When he playfights with his sons on the floor, he never let them win.
The author makes good use of family photographs in black and white, which are scattered across the book in Sebaldian fashion; some rigid early 20th century portraits, others relaxed 1970s snapshots of curly-haired children playing in deep, Norwegian snow. The photographs help illustrate and keep track of the impressive de Figueiredo family-tree, but their content also complements a narrative steeped in displacement and longing – Xavier standing between Indians and Europeans on the South African ship taking him to Britain in the 50s, or the author’s sari-clad aunts in front of a Norwegian shipyard.
‘When Dad told us where he came from,’ de Figueiredo writes, ‘he wasn’t so much describing a place he had left, but a lost childhood. The landscape of a childhood paradise is simple, specific details are few; instead it leaves an impression on the body.’ A thorough, sensitive and wide-ranging memoir-cum-family chronicle, A Stranger at My Table is an interesting and often moving account of people wrestling with the dissolution of both family and empire.
This is an extended version of a review first published at Bookstoker.com