Chico Buarque wears many hats. In his homeland of Brazil, he is lauded as a pop singer, samba artist, political activist, and writer. In the US, he is known mostly for being a novelist. His latest book, Spilt Milk is his fourth novel to be translated into English (from the original Portuguese by Alison Entrekin). At only 192 pages and divided into short chapters, the book is a quick read. Because each story can stand on its own, the novel could almost be considered a book of short stories.
The narrator and protagonist of the book, Eulálio Assumpção, is a senile aristocrat centenarian on his deathbed in a Rio de Janeiro hospital, telling his life stories to anyone within earshot. This includes doctors, orderlies, nurses, his daughter, and his dead mother. It’s sometimes difficult to tell exactly whom he is addressing. Fueled by pain medication and senility, Assumpção wanders back and forth in time. His stories overlap, repeat, and change like the bed sheets on the stretcher he is shuffled around on throughout the book. Switching between the past and present, muddling together his imagination and memory, Assumpção is clearly an unreliable narrator. He even says so himself when he states, “Best take what I say with a pinch of salt; you know how I’m given to fancies.”
His stories revolve around the Assumpção family, of white, aristocratic French-speaking lineage. We learn early on that Assumpção has a sense of entitlement, boasting of his family fortune and stating that his “great grandfather was made a baron by Pedro I of Brazil.” He reminisces about his long-dead mother, his daughter, his grandson, great-grandson, and mostly, his dead wife, Matilde. Matilde, the center of Assumpção’s world, left him after their daughter was born and then may or may not have died in a car crash, from cancer, or in an institution. Her cause of death depends on which of Assumpção’s stories you believe.
His convoluted tales about Matilde’s milk drying up or being withheld from their daughter take shape in the middle of the book when it becomes clear Spilt Milk is largely a tragic love story. Matilde’s breasts nearly become a separate character as Assumpção is continually referring to them in terms of sexuality and a source of nourishment and comfort. At one point, he recounts: “Me of all people, who missed Matilde as much as my daughter did… had no other breasts to console me. I did everything in my power to bring her back into the world.”
When he describes finding Matilde purposefully expressing her milk into the sink rather than into their daughter’s mouth, the term “spilt milk“ takes on even more weighty significance.
Matilde, the “darkest of her seven sisters“, embodies the race and class prejudice entrenched in upper class 19th / early 20th century Brazil. This is a place where Jockey Club receptions and trips to Europe rubbed shoulders with households that employed servants descended from slaves. Assumpção claims to be free of such prejudices since he admits that as a young man he wanted to bed his grandfather’s Afro-Brazilian slave’s grandson, Balbino. He claims, “I assure you, though, that this association with Balbino left me an adult without prejudice against colour.” However, Assumpção’s elitist attitude lingers on. Despite marrying Matilde whose skin is “almost cinnamon in colour“, Assumpção admits to being disgusted by her traditional dancing and is quick to “correct her [French] pronunciation“ and “apologize for her grammatical errors.”
Spilt Milk could clearly be Buarque’s statement on Brazil’s sordid racial history. When he wrote a play that criticized Brazil’s government, titled Roda Viva in 1968, he was temporarily imprisoned. Thankfully, Buarque made his cranky bigoted narrator in Spilt Milk likable, despite his eccentricities.
His crotchety demeanor and chutzpah often add humor to the otherwise sad stories. An example can be found in the fifth chapter, where he remembers Dubosc, a French doctor who appears in more than one of his stories. He reflects that Dubosc must have died years ago and hopes he went peacefully and not “tasting the slops of a hospital like this one, or continued to repeat merde alors until the hour of his death.” He then adds, “Because everything really is a crock of shit, but then it gets a little better, when at night my girlfriend visits.”
Assumpção’s wit and charm begin to rub off on the reader; he comes across like a more refined and endearing Archie Bunker. His recollections, in spite of their floating quality, are funny, nostalgic, and consistently entertaining. They point out that our experiences and memories are fleeting and so are we. In essence, our lives are little more than “spilt milk”. However, Buarque has constructed a novel and narrator that reveals the significance of a life fully lived, despite its brevity.