Top critical review
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on 30 January 2013
Memory is identity, and this is what ought to have guided Buarque's Spilt Milk. We are the narrative we have constructed out of our past, and when that narrative begins to unravel, there can be but little left. So when Assumpçao's memories begin to dissolve and merge into the present as he lies, aged one hundred, on a hospital bed, we know he must be close to the end. Buarque manages to hold our attention for a full novel's worth of remembrances. Sweetly nostalgic yet sober-minded, Assumpçao's account takes us on a long, slow-motion slide from Copacabana villa to emergency room stretcher through the hovels of a Rio suburb. And as socio-historical sketch, this works. The narrator, the hero, is the scion of an aristocratic family from Brazil's imperial times, but through ill luck and pusillanimous children, he sees it all wasted and he descends to the level of the poor, coloured people he once patronised. Bit by bit, whether through political or personal circumstance, he loses it all until all he has left is his name.
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.