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VINE VOICEon 3 October 2012
Chico Buarque is being hailed as Brazil's finest living writer and has won both of Brazil's major literary prizes. In his native Brazil he is best known as a musician although he also writes plays and poetry as well as novels.

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.
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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.
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on 1 May 2015
I love this book - I read it in Portuguese and bought the English version for my in-laws and my wife, who are English native speakers. They loved it too (my mother in-law used to teach Literature in schools). As a Brazilian, let me tell you, not many contemporary works will give you so much insight into the mind of a selfish, merciless, elitist Brazilian middle class (really, an upper class eager to deny that they are the privileged few in a poor country) and tear apart one's stereotypes of Brazil as this happy-go-lucky, samba-loving, friendly nation. Chico Buarque's writing is delightful, gracious, and the book is fun to read. It is centered on a rather agreeable character, a law abiding elderly citizen reminiscing about his life - but look beyond his desire for "order and progress" (concepts so dear to the establishment in Brazil that the words appear on the Brazilian flag) and you will understand some elements of the social tension that underpins Brazilian society. Chico Buarque is a curious case of someone known at home for his songs and lyrics against the 1964-1985 dictatorship and beautiful love songs throughout his career, who managed to reinvent himself as a writer at a later age and is known abroad mostly as a writer these days. I think this book shows why.
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on 29 June 2014
I found this book difficult to understand, due to the frequent time changes and the different memories of the narrator. I do understand that it is a representation of various periods in Brazil's history and the behaviour of the various parts of society but I did not enjoy reading it.
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on 16 November 2012
This novel is narrated by a 100 year old Brazilian, once a wealth aristocrat, but who has fallen on hard times. Each short(ish) chapter is an unparagraphed monologue recollecting times past - but the recollections overlap and don't cohere. It's hard to figure out what's really happened to the narrator's wife, for example, something which is quite central to his life. This is an extreme case of the unreliable narrator.

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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on 1 June 2013
Fresh and imaginative writing,.Great insights into life in South America. Buarque is a new and remarkable voice and has a distinct style.
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on 9 January 2015
Superb novel. Well written, even in translation. Never let me down for one minute. Just what reading is all about.
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