December 2012

Christopher Merkel

fiction

Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque, translated by Alison Entrekin

"With time I have learned that jealousy is an emotion to announce with an open heart... Because at its birth, it is a truly courteous sentiment and should be offered to a lady like a rose." And although that isn't the sentence with which Chico Buarque begins his novel Spilt Milk, those are unquestionably the words of his with which I have to begin my review. "Otherwise the next moment it closes up like a cabbage and inside it all evil ferments. Jealousy is, then, the most introverted kind of envy and, seething with rage, blames others for its ugliness." Without my letting it fester any longer, I offer it up to Buarque: the flower of my envy over his virtuosity, which I hope hasn't become too crushed or too faded so as to appear now discourteous.

Split Milk is, to be very sure, a virtuosic piece of writing. Buarque deserves the courtesy of my envy. As a critic, to be fair (or not, maybe, as the case may be), I realize that I perhaps tend to reserve overt praise. And for an author such as Buarque, who is blurbed by the likes of Saramago and Jonathan Franzen, I suppose that I would tend to reserve criticism entirely. An author like Buarque would hardly seem to have much to gain from my two cents -- nor, for that matter, would the critical consensus on him. Perhaps if I had something really scathing to say... although perhaps the reservation of my praise would only be construed as envy. And so I'm offering that (which, with my resorting to clichés like my "two cents," might be what I've got).

The figures of Buarque's speech are striking, as is that of his narrator, a fallen Brazilian aristocrat telling the story of his life, his family and of his one great love from the bed of a public hospital at age one hundred and two. Even from that hospital bed Eulálio D'Assumpção insists on maintaining an aristocratic bearing; and even if his memory sometimes fails him, the fragments of his testimony on the rise and fall of his family's fortunes don't fail to come together to form a more or less clear picture of the political and social history of Brazil from the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first. And there are also erections in church and Eulálio's introduction to "snow" by his father, but never discourteously put.

Still, Spilt Milk is, ultimately, just the collected (and sometimes repetitive) rants of an all but completely disregarded invalid. "Before you show anyone what I'm dictating to you," he cautions whomever, "do me a favor and have a grammarian look over the text so that your spelling mistakes won't be imputed to me." It's that enchanting prose of Buarque's as it manifests in the voice of Eulálio's that make the book so formidably inspiring of envy: his splendid reconstructions of the hazy dichotomies of nobility and vulgarity, of the Senate building and that sand-tracked kitchen at the house in Copacabana, of moneyed Europeans and the native people of Brazil -- all of which serve as only backdrops for the tumult of the love story between Eulálio and Matilde, for Eulálio's explanation of why, to cite one enviable turn of phrase, "the blind anger her cheerfulness provoked in me felt orange." In all of Eulálio's years, at the synthesis of all of those dichotomies has always been desire, and it always dancing to the tune of someone else's maxixe.

And still, Spilt Milk is also a reflection on the passage of time -- nostalgic but not necessarily forlorn. "Often a life will stop halfway, not because the thread is short, but because it is torturous." But Eulálio's own torture might be his very longevity, and the ability it confers upon him to reiterate the past. "As the future narrows," he says, "younger people have to pile up any which way in some corner of my mind. For the past, however, I have an increasingly spacious drawing room where there is more than enough space for..." everyone, really, "with each of their drawing rooms full of relatives and in-laws and gatecrashers with their lovers, as well as all of their memories." And all of it there in that hospital bed with Eulálio and his own memories.

"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," he confesses to whomever. His own name, which was the name of his great-great-great-grandfather and has been passed down all the way to his great-great-grandson, has become, for this Eulálio, "less of a name than an echo." And that echo -- as well as the beauty of its metaphor -- resounds throughout the labyrinth of drawing rooms that constitutes the most significant of the various places visited by Spilt Milk.

Of course there's also a debt of gratitude due to Alison Entrekin, without whose translation I'd have nothing of which to envy. Indeed, the specific language of the metaphors I so appreciated is just as much hers as Buarque's -- although my saying so is in no way, I promise, any maneuver on my part to try to attenuate the credit due to either of the two. Neither would it be any reservation of praise if I were to compare Spilt Milk to a tremendous amalgam of the keenly guided limited narrative of Anonymous Celebrity by Ignacio de Loyola Brandão and the unbridled lust of the narrator-protagonist of House of the Fortunate Buddhas by João Ubaldo Ribeira with the dramatic social and historical breadth of Mercè Rodoreda's Barcelonian family epic A Broken Mirror. No. But regardless, I'll make no further reservations and offer up my envy unequivocally. Because I might still be able to express the courteous sentiment, and because, you know, as they say, it won't be of any use crying over it later.

Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque, translated by Alison Entrekin
Grove Press
ISBN: 978-0802120083
192 pages