Chico Buarque (translated by Alison Entrekin)
Atlantic Books, £7.99
Chico Buarque’s latest novel unfolds from a Rio hospital deathbed as the scrambled first-person narrative of a failing centenarian, Eulalio Assumpcao.
Raving to his daughter, the nurses or even to the walls and ceiling, the glut of broken detail gathers to a slow coherence, until a life is laid finally and fully bare, one lived with vigour and poisoned by privilege. In parallel, a bigger story is told, nothing less than the multi-generational story of Brazil itself.
Born into a white aristocratic family, Eulalio was the great-grandson of the slave-trading Baron dos Arcos, and grandson of a lusty abolitionist plantation owner whose own slave women and their offspring remained loyal even after being freed. We learn of his father, a senior conservative politician corrupt to his core and reckless with prostitutes and cocaine, an apparent untouchable who met an inevitably bloody end.
Along the way, Eulalio’s own fortune is lost, squandered by a reckless son in-law on bad stock market investments.
And so the cycle runs, through his daughter to the grandson who dies in prison, a victim of the political mayhem, and on into the present day, and the drug dealing great-great-grandson who comes to visit, accompanied by a tattooed and scantily-clad girlfriend.
Always at the story’s core, though, is love, and longing for the lost one, Mathilde, his wife. To marry her was to cross the divide, she being “the girl with cinnamon skin”. The marriage is marred by his jealousy and occasional abuse, and then, like the wind, she is gone.
Again and again she features, as a suicide, as a victim of tuberculosis, as a runaway in the name of passion. But there are no easy answers, and the confused unreliability of the narrative makes it uncertain as to whether or not she ever even existed.
Long considered Brazil’s greatest songwriter, Chico Buarque enjoyed enormous success as a musician perfectly placed to capitalise on the bossa nova boom of the early 1960s.
Imprisoned in 1968 for penning the controversial political protest play, Roda Viva, he refused to be intimidated and has remained an outspoken advocate for human rights.
And while his musical output hasn’t waned, recent decades have seen him direct his talents more and more towards the novel form, with inevitable success.
Spilt Milk, his fourth novel, has caused a small sensation, winning a number of the country’s major literary awards, including the Premio Jabuti, Brazil’s equivalent of the Booker Prize.
Distinguished by a captivating voice and fully realised characterisations, this short novel is remarkable in its scope, its portrait of a life not only a study in regret but a rich allegory on the state of a nation still struggling to cope with the sins of its turbulent past.
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