Book Review - Spilt Milk

Chico Buarque is something of a legend in Brazil: a renowned singer and celebrated writer, he was briefly imprisoned in 1968 by the military dictatorship for his play, Roda Viva. It says something about Buarque’s love for his native country that, despite the threats to his freedom and censorship of his songs, he absented himself for just one year before returning to Brazil in 1971. He continues to live there today.

At the heart of Buarque’s eloquent novella, Spilt Milk, lucidly translated by Alison Entrekin, is a bittersweet love of homeland. The story is narrated by a centenarian, Eulálio Assumpção, who lies in his hospital bed reminiscing about his past and the loss of his first and only love. Time seems to have stood still for Eulálio, and as he tracks back and forth over his life, his memory and old certainties start to fragment. Weaving a tale of epic proportions from the seemingly disconnected musings of an unreliable narrator, Buarque cleverly exploits our expectations. We trust Eulálio’s version of events precisely because he doesn’t care what we think of him. He comes from a privileged background and is proud of his aristocratic stock. His great-grandfather owned vast plantations, the land worked by slaves, while his arms dealing father was a senator with a penchant for women and cocaine. Eulálio’s family squandered their fortune and their dramatic fall from grace reflects the changes in Brazil’s political landscape. By the end of his life, Eulálio is penniless and has to rely on his drug-dealing great-grandson to pay his hospital bills.

“Memory is a vast wound”, Eulálio tells his nurse. As his thoughts swirl around, they always return to rest on one person; his teenage sweetheart, the “cinnamon-coloured” Matilde, whom he married in an act of defiance against his snobbish mother. Their marriage was short-lived. Adding to her mystique, the truth about Matilde’s fate is buried among Eulálio’s multilayered recollections.

Did she run off with a lover, commit suicide, or die of an incurable disease? For Eulálio, Matilde comes to represent Brazil itself; in his mind’s eye she remains forever seventeen – a captivating but elusive memory. As well as exploring big themes, such as love, loss, sex and death, Spilt Milk vividly evokes the country’s past and hints at some of the sociological contradictions still facing Brazil today.

Originally published in the TLS