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 by Ivo de Figueiredo is the author’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.
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.
The author paints a vivid, sunlit picture of his ancestors and the different countries they could never quite call home. His father Xavier migrated and 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.’
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. He soon became abusive towards his wife, and when he playfights with his sons on the floor, he never let them win.
‘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.
A Stranger at My Table by Ivo de Figueiredo is published by DoppelHouse Press, 336 pages.