In the chapter’s preface, Trevor Noah recounts the following story: one day, at the age of 24, Trevor’s mother tells him to find his father. It has been more than ten years; Trevor assumes he will never see his father again. Patricia insists that he needs to get a real impression of who his father is rather than living with illusions about him.
The narrative jumps far into the future, to a point when Trevor has already moved out and started his career. Patricia has fulfilled her dream of raising Trevor on her own terms, without needing a man’s support, and Trevor has no strong sense of longing for his father, but Patricia still thinks he can benefit from rekindling a relationship with Robert, even if neither of them has talked to him in years.
Noah’s father “is a complete mystery.” Trevor knows nothing about him, except for that he has an older sister (whom Trevor has also never met) and works as a chef. When they knew each other before, Trevor always called him “Robert,” not “dad,” because of the risk of their being found out.
The fact that Trevor used to have to hide his relationship with his father also shows that there is new potential for them after the end of apartheid, when it is no longer illegal for them to be related.
Trevor does know that Robert is “very Swiss, clean and particular and precise,” living “in his own world” and uninterested in marrying because he is so invested in his privacy. He also “hates racism and homogeneity more than anything”—he breaks all the rules of apartheid and opens one of Johannesburg’s “first integrated restaurants,” which is incredibly successful because people are more curious about one another than they are racist. But neighbors get the government to shut it down.
Like Patricia and Trevor, Robert is fiercely independent; he insists on living according to his own rules and subverting the apartheid system (which also explains why he illegally leased Patricia a room in the first place). His restaurant, like Trevor’s birth, proves that no amount of institutional separation or cultural hatred can ultimately succeed in holding groups apart; fundamentally, many people (although not all people) are social, curious, and want to build relationships with those unlike them.
Robert then moves to the integrated neighborhood of Yeoville, where he lives an “extremely frugal” life in a simple house. During his childhood, Trevor visits on Sundays (instead of black church), on his birthday, and on Christmas, which he gets to celebrate like a European (with lights, stockings, and Santa Claus). Robert cooks for Trevor—always the same German meal—but otherwise they mostly sit in silence. Trevor only gets “a few minutes of information a few minutes at a time” every week.
Despite his successful restaurant and white privilege, Robert has little interest in living extravagantly or amassing wealth (even if his Christmas celebrations are luxurious compared to Patricia’s family’s). Despite his austerity, silence, and fixation on routine, Robert shows his affection simply by making time for Trevor.
Trevor gradually loses contact with his father, who moves away to Cape Town by the time Trevor is 13. Patricia has since married Abel, who turns out to be a controlling alcoholic and does not want Trevor and Patricia having any contact with Robert. Trevor stays busy and starts his comedy career, but always wonders about his father. It is easy to assume that absence means negativity—that Robert does not care—but Patricia always speaks positively about him and insists that Trevor track him down.
Robert’s general emotional distance and insistence on privacy make it even harder for Trevor to interpret his absence. It is important to remember that Abel’s alcoholism and abuse lurk in the background of Trevor’s life from the time he burns down the house onward (in other words, the rest of the book). But Trevor does not address it head-on until the last chapter.
Robert is not in the phone book, so Trevor checks with acquaintances and then the Swiss embassy. The embassy initially refuses to give Trevor any information, because Robert is not listed on his birth certificate, but eventually agrees to forward Trevor’s letter on. He gets a response after a few months and, a few months after that, goes to visit the address his father has given him.
While Robert’s privacy makes him all the more difficult to contact, his response confirms that this has nothing to do with an attempt to get away from Trevor or his mother; suddenly, Trevor again has access to a mysterious and long-forgotten part of his identity.
When he goes to Cape Town, Trevor is apprehensive, afraid that he will not remember his father’s face. But Trevor recognizes him instantly when he opens the door, and they have the same Sunday lunch they used to share years before. Robert pulls out a photo album: it is “a scrapbook of everything [Trevor] had ever done,” since the very beginning of his career. Trevor feels “a flood of emotions” and a sudden sense of affirmation: “he’d always been proud of me […] he was never not my father.”
Because of Robert’s quietness, meticulousness, and tendency to show his love with actions and routine care for Trevor (rather than words, gifts, or outreach), the photo book is all the more proof that Trevor continues to play an important role in his life. Ironically, even though Trevor knows almost nothing about his father, now his father has a record of almost everything Trevor has ever done.
Trevor decides that his next order of business should be to interview his father; this is a mistake, since he wanted a relationship, not mere facts, and “relationships are built in the silences.” When he tries to interview his father, Robert gets defensive and accuses Trevor of “interrogating” him; they decide to spend time together instead, and when Trevor later exclaims that, “all I know is that you’re extremely secretive,” Robert is glad that “you’re getting to know me already.”
Through this tension with his father, Trevor learns that love means respecting and cooperating with someone’s boundaries, even when it means things like not asking questions about their past. With his father, Trevor has to tamper his curiosity and build a relationship centered on time and effort.