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Chico Buarque: Leite Derramado (Spilt Milk)

Our hero is Eulálio Assumpção, an ageing Brazilian aristocrat who has fallen on hard times and who is now in a not very good public hospital in Rio de Janeiro in not very good health. During the course of the book, he will reach his hundredth birthday. He is seeking to explain his life and the life of his fairly extensive family to his long-suffering daughter, to the nurses in the hospital and even to his long dead parents, none of whom, at least in his view, seem terribly interested. He has even gone so far as to propose to the nurse (we’ll start our new life in an old city, where everyone greets everyone else and no one knows us. I’ll teach you to speak properly, to use the different types of cutlery and wine glass). Her reaction is not noted.

He is called Eulálio but has been known by various nicknames and does not particularly like Eulálio, not least because it is a family name passed down to him. His family has had a distinguished history. His grandfather was an abolitionist, who wanted to send the blacks back to Africa. His father was a colourful and initially successful man, a senator, rich and influential. The family lived in a huge mansion, though they lost money in the Wall Street Crash.. It was his father who introduced him to cocaine and his father who took him to France, where they hobnobbed with Le Corbuisier and Josephine Baker. His father, however, was not a saint. He was a ladies’ man and was involved in various corrupt deals. When his father was machine-gunned down, Eulálio did not know whether it was because of his dirty deals or because of his extramarital relations.

At his father’s memorial service, Eulálio met Matilde. Her skin was quite dark, so much so that Eulálio’s racist mother asked if she smelled. Nevertheless, the couple married. It was not a happy marriage. Matilde eventually left him leaving him with a baby. What happened to Matilde is not clear, to us, or apparently, to him, with various possible fates ascribed to her. He tells people, however, that she died in childbirth. Eulálio is, of course, a thoroughly unreliable narrator.

We follow his chequered and decidedly unsuccessful life. The family mansion seems to have been expropriated to build a road. He is still, he says, trying to get compensation. His daughter married Amerigo Palumba, nominally a member of the Italian Monarchist Party, who ended up leaving her with debts and a baby. This baby grew up to be a communist, who was apparently killed by the police. The subsequent generations led to a murdered great-grandson and now a great-great-grandson who seems to be rich (he is paying some of the hospital bills) but the implication is that, in the family tradition, the money is not earned honestly.

Eulálio himself worked for a French arms dealer and does not hide the fact that corruption was in play. Nor does he hide the fact that he had a homosexual infatuation for young black servant when he was younger.

Buarque himself comes from a rich a family though it is not clear how much this novel is a reference to his family or the milieu he came from. What is clear is that the Assumpção family is not a model family, both as regards sex and money and Eulálio himself, while having his family’s weaknesses as regards sex and money, had none of his family’s guile and cunning as regards obtaining both. However, he has managed to sort of drift through life and, unlike others in his family, survive a hundred years. He may be thoroughly unreliable, dishonest, a sexual predator, a poor father, son and husband but he is alive.

Buarque, using a mentally unstable, rambling old man as his narrator, has written an excellent novel about the corruption at the top in Brazil, about Brazil’s history, about racism and Brazil’s treatment of its black community (which, let us not forget, is larger than the black community in the United States) and about stumbling through life as Eulálio clearly has done.

First published 2009 by Companhia das Letras
First published in English 2013 by Atlantic
Translated by Allison Entrekin