Spilt Milk Hardcover – 1 Oct 2012
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An exceptionally vivid picture of Brazilian high society... an absorbing, if bitter, meditation on Brazil --Sunday Telegraph
Chico Buarque is at the forefront of a new wave of writing that should make you rethink everything you thought you knew about South American literature. When I finished reading Budapest my face ached from smiling at its ingenuity, its audacity, its freshness, its line-by-line effulgence, its irresistible narrative momentum. --Jonathan Franzen
I read Spilt Milk in a single night, awed and deeply moved. Buarque has breathed the story of a whole country into a single, unforgettable man with a soul as big as Brazil. But he's also written one of the saddest love stories, and one of the truest. --Nicole Krauss
'I read Spilt Milk in a single night, awed and deeply moved...' Nicole Krauss
Winner of both of Brazil's major literary prizes, Spilt Milk is a visceral account of loss, memory and longing.
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Eulalio Assumpcao is 100 years old; his family was once part of Brazilian aristocracy and he led a privileged life. Now he lies in a public hospital bed in Rio remembering and telling his story to the nurses, his visiting daughter but mostly to the plain white ceiling. The narrative is in the form of a monologue and, as you would expect from his age, his memories are disjointed and often out of sequence, he sometimes wonders if they are memories or just memories of memories. The central character in his life is Mathilde, she was the love of his life but she left him and broke his heart. His memories flit between his parents, his children and his drug-dealing grandson but always come back to Mathilde.
In spite of the setting this is not a depressing book it is a celebration of one man's survival rather than mourning his inevitable death. Within the pages of this short novel and through the eyes of Eulalio Assumpcao, Buarque also explores the history of Brazil. `Spilt Milk' is not an easy book to read due to the rambling narrative and the fact that each chapter consists of a single paragraph, however I found it to be more than worth the effort it took to really get into Eulalio's story as once in it was hard to drag myself away. It is a complex and poetic literary novel and recommended for readers who enjoy the special quality of South American literature, fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Javier Marias and Roberto Bolano.
As a private drama, however, this is less engaging. The problem is that the faltering mind of a dying man is a poor guide to constructing a cast of characters. Central to Assumpçao's memories are his wife Matilde, but such are his divagations that one is left unsure whether she left him, died young, or never existed. Indeed she might only be a fantasy born of that young nurse to whom he purports to be telling his life story. Rather than feeling touched, though, we are left bemused. The same goes of the relationship with the narrator's son, or is it his grandson, or great grandson and after all, do we care? When memories go, everything goes: the problem is that it is difficult to build a sufficiently engaging novel around that premise.
There are certainly segments of this book I enjoyed - notably the accounts of the narrator's own excess at his 100th birthday party. Overall, though, I found it very difficult to engage with in any sustained way.
The dust jacket tells me that this book has won both Brazil's main literary prizes; also that Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss and Jose Saramago all like this writer. I suspect therefore that I am suffering from a blind spot here in my appreciation of this - but I would suggest other potential readers approach with caution.
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