Author Michaël Ferrier’s grandfather is a mystery. All the family knows, a scant two generations later, is that he left his birthplace on Mauritius around 1922, joined a circus, moved to Madagascar, and made and lost a fortune on the island. In Over Seas of Memory (ably translated by Martin Munro), Ferrier reconstructs his grandfather, Maxime’s, life as much as he can, fills in the rest with his imagination, and describes his own journey to Madagascar on his father’s trail. Unlike many other family memoirs, Over Seas of Memory remains more mystery than not. Ferrier likes to dwell on questions and possibilities—which is perhaps as well, given how little evidence remains of Maxime.
After a brief career in a more-mendacious-than-usual circus, Maxime settles down in Mahajanga, Madagascar, a city on the northwest coast of the island. In 1922 (and until 1960), the island was a French colony. Maxime, though ethnically French, was curiously a British citizen due to the vagaries of European politics. I tell you all this to show just how meandering a road Ferrier has to follow to find out more about his grandfather. Ferrier focuses on two central questions about Maxime: why did he leave Mauritius and why did he pay to have three graves erected in a cemetery in Mahajanga?
Because of the lack of documentary evidence, it’s hard to answer any questions about Maxime’s life, let alone the big questions. Where evidence doesn’t exist, Ferrier uses his imagination and educated guesswork to fill in the many gaps. Ferrier did meet his grandfather, when he was a young boy. But by the time the two met, Maxime’s best days were far behind him. Ferrier doesn’t seem at all frustrated by this. He relishes any scrap of paper or old-timer’s memory for the glimpses they give into the past. He also likes to let his semi-fictional, semi-nonfictional book ramble through Malagsy and French history, the history of Mahajanga and his grandmother’s connection to the jazz scene there in the 1920s. He also thinks a lot about what it means to be French, to be a citizen of a country that brutalized the Malagasy people during their colonial reign, as well as what it means to pack up and start over somewhere else.
At the end of Over Seas of Memory, we get answers to the big questions. I won’t say any more for fear of ruining the book. Instead I’ll say, the answers to the questions are not at all what I expected. I would recommend this book to readers who like to think about the questions that history presents rather than the facts that can be proven. Over Seas of Memory is like no other memoir or work of nonfiction I’ve ever read. This can be a good thing in that it takes readers into a mind that works with different expectations than English-language writers do. It can also be incredibly frustrating for readers who like their nonfiction more concrete than Ferrier is willing or able to be.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.