A Stranger at My Table
The postcolonial story of a family caught in the half-life of empires
By Ivo de Figueiredo
Translated by Deborah Dawkin
April 2019. Paperback.
336 pages with 32 black and white illustrations.
$22.95 | 9780999754474
From the acclaimed biographer of Norway’s most treasured cultural icons, Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch, comes the story of a migrant family in search of roots and for each other.
Ivo de Figueiredo’s lyrical and imagistic memoir navigates a difficult search for the origins of his estranged father, which opens a door to a family history spanning four continents, five centuries and the rise and fall of two empires. At the age of 45, Figueiredo traces his father’s family in the diaspora. Having emigrated from the Portuguese colony of Goa on the west coast of India to British East Africa, and later to the West, his father’s ancestors were Indians with European ways and values—trusted servants of the imperial powers. But in postcolonial times they became homeless, redundant, caught between the age of empires and the age of nations.
With lush descriptions and forthcoming honesty, A Stranger at My Table tells the story of a family unwittingly tied to two European empires, who paid the price for their downfall, weathering revolution and many forms of prejudice. The author’s trove of often-strange photographs, letters and recordings as well as his eye for the smallest details and double-meanings lead the reader down a mysterious path as his search for his family’s heritage results in a surprising reunification with his father and reconciliation with his past.
A touching, contemplative chronicle of loss and self-discovery […] This deeply realized personal narrative of a beloved mother and a distant father, finally understood from the perspective of adulthood, is a moving reading experience.
– Publishers Weekly
In a manner that put me in mind of John Berger’s novel Here is Where We Meet, Ivo de Figueiredo looks back without anger but with an astonishing compassion at a father who went missing from his son’s life. This is a story that could have been a novel for it has the breadth of vision and the interiority of perception required for one. A heartbreaking and beautiful account of a family’s lives.
– Jerry Pinto, author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb
Figueiredo is an impressively sophisticated writer [… and a] crucial part of Norway’s stellar contemporary cohort of verfabula specialists, pushing narrative non-fiction into the high art category classically reserved for novels and poetry. Notable contemporaries include Karl Ove Knausgåard, whose six-volume autobiography plumbs the extreme limits of verisimilitude, and Åsne Seierstad, author of The Bookseller Of Kabul, a global best-seller. […] Figueiredo’s book is […] lifted by immensely moving feats of empathy in reaching across time and half the world to plunge towards his father’s long-abandoned Afrikander universe of meaning. Read the full feature article.
– Vivek Menezes, “The in-between world of the African Goans,” Mint
It’s impossible to do justice to the complexity of Figueiredo’s writing in a review. His lyrical prose is exquisite. […] What commitment can we Goans make to his story? Can we claim Figueiredo for ourselves? He has no inkling of what it means to be Goan. His only, fleeting, acquaintance with the community has been the Norwegian Goan Association in Oslo, where desultory meetings conducted by disinterested parties held little appeal for him. […] Maybe we are all just individuals with disparate stories, capable of dissolving and reconstituting, leaving homelands and finding new ones, setting sail from safe harbours and embracing unknown futures. And yet, are we really anything other than the sum total of our shared historical past? Can we ever deny that collective euphoria which transcends distance and binds us together? Figueiredo’s story is ours.
– Selma Carvalho, O Heraldo and Joao-Roque
What strikes one immediately on reading the Goan-Norwegian author Ivo de Figueiredo’s memoir, A Stranger at My Table, is the beauty in its narration. This 321-page account of a man’s search for his father – and, in turn, discovering his own community – is rich in some of the finest, very lovingly crafted passages I have read lately. […It] raises crucial issues of identity, nationality, religion, class differences, racism, and the position of women, as well as personal ones like love, isolation, estrangement, age, grief, and helplessness. In other words everything that matters to us today.
The English translation by Deborah Dawkin […] made me marvel at the movement of beauty between languages and how an outstanding translation can not only open the doors of a work to a wider audience, but also inspire a certain curiosity among that audience towards other works written in that original language, other works written by that particular author, and other works written on that particular theme.
– Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, Scroll.in
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.
Figueiredo uses techniques that are reminiscent of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. […] In passages he dazzles his reader with a mixture of recollections, colonial history, literary references, passing portraits and scenic descriptions. He also includes Norwegian history, social mobility and immigration through the striking contrast between the exotic son-in-law and the mother’s family of modest religious folk.
Engaging and extremely well-written […] A Stranger at My Table is a story that spans continents, multiple identities and different classes […] in the depiction of the fate of the Figueiredo family, where family became their true homeland as the empires and social systems to which they once belonged slipped through their fingers. Thus, through one man’s fate, the author succeeds in asking important questions about identity, origin and the price of migration.
– Sindre Hovdenakk, VG+
With A Stranger at my Table, Ivo de Figueiredo expands our understanding of what prose can be. […] It is touching and highly personal. […] He combines first-person narrative with personal inquiry and a scholarly account of history. This makes the book unique.
Like Daniel Mendelsohn in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, the author follows the trail of his family across the globe, through travels, interviews and research while the understanding of his own background and history gradually grows.
In his search for identity and background, the author elegantly depicts the story of his family as an integrated part of colonial world history. […] The journey into his father’s life shows knowledge of different aspects of colonial rule, as well as the various nuances of racial division. This makes this story more than a family saga, with relevance to today’s political climate: “Man does not fear the unknown as many think, they fear what they think they know.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ivo de Figueiredo (b. 1966) is the critically-acclaimed biographer of Norway’s treasured cultural icon, Henrik Ibsen (Yale University Press, April 2019), and his next book is the official biography of Edvard Munch, commissioned by the Munch Foundation. In 2002, he was awarded the Brage Prize for a biography of Johan Bernhard Hjort, the co-founder of the Norwegian Fascist Party who later became a resistance fighter and human rights lawyer. A Stranger at My Table was influenced by such authors as W.G. Sebald, Edmund de Waal and Daniel Mendelsohn. The book received one of the highest non-fiction honors in Norway, the 2016 Language Prize and was nominated for the Brage Prize that same year. Figueiredo works as a critic at Morgenbladet and Aftenposten and is a member of the Norwegian Academy.
Photo: Jo Michael