This Brazilian life is a carnival of history and memory
- Book: Spilt Milk
- Location: Brazil, Rio de Janeiro
- Author: Chico Buarque
Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção – descendant of Portuguese nobility, former Eulálio weapons dealer, great-great-grandfather of a Brazilian drug dealer – lies in a hospital bed in his one-hundredth year of life and remembers. As Eulálio says, “Memory is truly a pandemonium, but it’s all in there: after rummaging around a little the owner can find all manner of things.” In his old age and infirmity, his stories blend and blur, weaving together past and present through images, emotions, and associations in a rich tapestry of national and family history.
Chico Buarque’s newest novel, Spilt Milk, from Grove Press, is told in Eulálio’s voice – compelling, relentless, and full of character. The short novel was awarded two of Brazil’s leading literary prizes when it was originally published in Portuguese in 2009. Alison Entrekin’s translation from the Portuguese is vivid and lively. Buarque is well-known as a musician in Brazil, and his prose has a rhythmic, musical quality to it that carries the reader forward effortlessly.
The story reveals Brazilian history through the decline of the Assumpção family. Eulálio’s great-great-grandfather arrived in Brazil with the Portuguese court. His grandfather was an aristocratic plantation owner. His father was a powerful, womanizing senator. Our narrator Eulálio has lost power, his wealth, and his wife. The Eulálios that follow in the family line are criminals and drug dealers. They become interchangeable. His family line is inextricably tied to the changing social structure of Brazil: “…Rio de Janeiro looks like a family tree if you don’t believe me have an errand boy go buy a map of the city.” Buarque describes the urban and the rural with equal vigour and the family (mis)fortunes are reflected in the changing geography: from the grand plantation, to Copacabana, to, first, a pair of apartments in the city, then a single apartment, to a hospital room, and eventually to a stretcher in a hospital hallway.
Eulálio tells of his family and his colleagues, but most of all, he talks of Matilde: Matilde, his wife, who abandoned him Matilde, who haunts him. He returns again and again to his recollections of his wife with skin the colour of cinnamon. Episodes are retold (sometimes with different details), but according to Eulálio, “…if with age we tend to repeat certain stories, it’s not senility, but because certain stories don’t stop happening in us until the end of our lives.” The people and the events at his emotional core, that shaped his life, are the ones that keep recurring in his mind. People, places, and times become confused: “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.” But even in his senility and confusion, the story of Eulálio’s life reveals how personal history engages with national history.
Spilt Milk is a masterful novel about memory, family, nation, and self. Do yourself a favour and pick it up.