The Rio thing

Spilt Milk, by Chico Buarque, translated by Alison Entrekin, Atlantic, RRP£12.99, 179 pages

Chico Buarque is one of Brazil’s national treasures. The celebrated singer-songwriter has been a fixture of popular culture since the 1960s. And “Chico”, as Brazilians know him, is also a novelist. His previous book, Budapest (2004), established him as a serious writer of fiction. Now Spilt Milk confirms him as one of the most remarkable contemporary authors.

When (as Leite Derramado) the book was first published in 2009, some critics compared him favourably to Brazil’s greatest 19th-century writer, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, a shrewd observer of Brazilian society. Others found echoes of social historians such as Gilberto Freyre, and even of Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Chico’s father.

The book’s protagonist, Eulálio Assumpção, is a centenarian who tells the riches-to-rags story of his life from a hospital bed in Rio de Janeiro, regaling anyone who will listen with tales about his great-great-grandfather, a confidant to the Portuguese royal family during its Brazilian exile; about his great-grandfather, who made his fortune in the trade of slaves from Mozambique; about his grandfather, an abolitionist during the years of Brazil’s empire; and about his father, a senator apparently murdered for political reasons.

But Eulálio’s tale is not what it seems. The family narrative may be reminiscent of 19th-century novels but Spilt Milk has its roots in more playful and less linear traditions. Eulálio is an unreliable narrator. We cannot even be sure (because neither can he, in his morphine-addled state) for whom he is performing his monologue. Is it a nurse? Is it his daughter, Maria Eulália? Is it his fellow patients at the hospital?

His recollections are not to be trusted. Although he has chosen to believe that his father’s assassination was politically motivated, he cannot suppress the notion that the senator might have been killed by a hoodwinked husband. The garrulous Eulálio hides as much as he reveals.

Buarque’s use of concealment gives the novel narrative tension, and it is central to Eulálio’s account of his relationship with his young wife, Matilde. Though we learn early on about her “disappearance”, we reach the final pages with no clear sense of what happened to her. Crucially, Eulálio is left pondering the question of his wife’s fidelity. Might she have had an affair with Eulálio’s French business associate? Or perhaps the betrayal is all in Eulálio’s head.

Amid the family drama, Buarque offers a melancholy vision of Rio de Janeiro’s decadence. Eulálio’s downwardly-mobile life takes him from stately mansion in Botafogo to a chalet on Copacabana’s beachfront, then to the suburbs and finally to a slum on what was once his family ranch.

“Memory is truly a pandemonium,” Eulálio declares, “but it’s all in there; after rummaging around a little the owner can find all manner of things. What isn’t right is for someone from the outside to meddle with it, like the maid who moves one’s paper to dust the office.” But the rummaging, he concedes, is not without consequences. “Anything I remember now is going to hurt; memory is a vast wound.” And reminiscences are undependable: “My memories, and memories of memories of memories, are so numerous that I’m not sure in which layer of recollection I was just now.”

Eulálio’s diatribes betray casual racism among Brazil’s elite and expose unsavoury but widely prevailing attitudes towards class and gender differences. These reflections are woven lightly into the fabric of the text, often with gentle humour. It is one of the great merits of this book that it conveys so much information with such elegance in Alison Entrekin’s careful translation.

Spilt Milk is one of the outstanding Brazilian novels of recent times. It is as accessible and enjoyable for readers with no specialist knowledge of Brazil’s social and cultural nuances as it is for those who are better-acquainted.

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