[Marxism] Chico Buarque novel

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 24 10:19:56 MST 2012

NY Times Book Review December 23, 2012
Topics to Make Brazil Squirm

By Chico Buarque
Translated by Alison Entrekin
177 pages. Grove Press. $23.

Francisco Buarque de Hollanda, known professionally as Chico Buarque, 
has had a curiously bifurcated artistic career. In his homeland, Brazil, 
he is considered the greatest songwriter of the past 50 years, a kind of 
Cole Porter crossed with Bob Dylan whose elegant compositions, written 
alone or with partners like Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and 
Caetano Veloso, have become standards in the Great Brazilian Songbook.

But to the extent that Mr. Buarque is known at all in the 
English-speaking world his primary identity is that of a novelist with a 
cult following among more celebrated writers. “Spilt Milk” is his fourth 
novel, and it comes with the ringing endorsement not only of his friend 
José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel laureate who died in 2010 (a year 
after the book was published in Brazil) but also of fashionable younger 
American writers impressed by Mr. Buarque’s verbal dexterity, like 
Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss.

Mr. Buarque’s writing style is strikingly different in the two realms, 
but his reputation is well earned in both. As a songwriter he tends 
toward lilting compositions that draw on bossa nova and samba, while as 
a novelist he is a master at generating discomfort, and in “Spilt Milk” 
he confronts the themes that make Brazil squirm, from the stain of 
slavery to the inferiority complex the country has historically felt 
when it compares itself to Europe.

The protagonist of “Spilt Milk” is the centenarian Eulálio Montenegro 
d’Assumpção, an aristocrat down on his luck, tossing in his deathbed in 
a decrepit public hospital, hungry to tell the story of his misspent 
life to a visiting daughter, nurses or anyone else who will listen to 
his ramblings. He is a thoroughly disagreeable creature and the 
old-fashioned, pompous aura of his name offers a clue to the traits that 
make him that way: he is a condescending racist, misogynist, snob and 

“Many of you, if not everyone here, are descended from slaves, which is 
why I am proud to say that my grandfather was a great benefactor of the 
Negro race,” he tells his caretakers in the hospital in one typical 
harangue. “I’ll have you know he visited Africa in 1800 and something, 
dreaming of founding a new nation for your ancestors.”

Despite those prejudices Eulálio fell in love with and married Matilde, 
a girl with “cinnamon skin” who was, depending on what version of the 
story he is recalling, either the daughter of a congressional colleague 
of his father or “a colored girl we brought up as if she were one of the 
family.” But he finds her taste in clothes and music to be “vulgar,” and 
when she leaves him — or dies in a car accident, a leprosarium or mental 
hospital (exactly what happened is never made clear) — he spends the 
rest of his life mourning her absence.

The elites portrayed in “Spilt Milk” are not unfamiliar to Mr. Buarque, 
who is himself a descendant of one of Brazil’s most distinguished 
families, known for its intellectual attainments. His father, Sérgio, 
was an eminent historian and sociologist whose 1936 book “Roots of 
Brazil” still stands as among the most influential studies of the 
Brazilian character, and one of his father’s cousins was Aurélio Buarque 
de Holanda, who compiled the dictionary that is the Brazilian equivalent 
of our Webster’s.

On one level “Spilt Milk” can even be seen as a fictionalized treatment 
of some of the topics addressed in “Roots of Brazil.” The corrosive 
inheritance of slavery, which began nearly a century earlier than in the 
United States and lasted until 1888, and Portuguese colonialism aren’t 
the only themes common to the two books; so too are the decadent 
arrogance of the landowning class and a national obsession with titles 
of nobility and other social formalities.

But “Spilt Milk” is also about memory, with Eulálio’s guilt and senility 
making him the personification of the unreliable narrator. “Memory is a 
vast wound,” he warns his interlocutors, “truly a pandemonium,” and his 
recall of the past is complicated by the fact that “some memories are 
still coming by ship, while others have already arrived by airmail.” As 
a result he jumbles together the sequences of events and the identities 
of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, leaving the reader 
to try to sort things out.

In his previous novel, “Budapest,” Mr. Buarque, who has also written 
plays and film scripts, seemed to be carving out new territory and a new 
approach: a Brazilian ghostwriter in Europe for an “anonymous authors 
convention” ends up in the Hungarian capital, where he adopts a new 
identity and immerses himself in a new language and culture. With its 
echoes of Borges and Calvino, “Budapest” was a mixture of social satire 
and absurdist comedy as well as a meditation on the mystery and beauty 
of words.

”Spilt Milk,” however, finds Mr. Buarque circling back to familiar 
concerns and story lines, specifically those of “Turbulence,” his bleak 
first novel, published in 1991. In that book a younger but equally 
feckless aristocrat, also fallen on hard times and also with Mommy 
problems, offers a hallucinatory account of his decline, which ends with 
him living in poverty among slum dwellers squatting on land that once 
belonged to his family.

That is more or less what befalls Eulálio d’Assumpção too. But the tone 
of “Spilt Milk,” whose title seems to refer both to the familiar proverb 
about not crying and the fecundity of Matilde’s breasts when she is 
nursing the child who will become Eulálio’s only heir, is different. 
Eulálio’s decline has a Beckett-like black humor, in contrast to the 
nightmarish intensity of “Turbulence,” and some Brazilian readers and 
critics have described “Spilt Milk” as a comedy.

In an interview Mr. Buarque once remarked that when an idea comes to 
him, it “can serve just as well for a 200-page novel as for a song with 
15 couplets,” and “Spilt Milk” is in fact derived from a song of his 
released in 1987. That song, “Old Francisco,” was sung from the point of 
view of an elderly freed slave looking back on the sorrows and hardships 
of his life, whereas “Spilt Milk,” though similarly pensive, shifts the 
focus to his oppressors. But both are lyrical tales of regret and 
failing remembrance that highlight Mr. Buarque’s gift for narrative and 
the telling detail.

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