In 'Spilt Milk,' centenarian offers reflections as death approaches
Eulalio d'Assumpçao is on his deathbed. A century old, born into the Brazilian aristocracy, he has watched his world change, or crumble, and still he lingers. “As the future narrows,” he tells us early in Chico Buarque's deft and moving “Spilt Milk,” “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.”
This is the tension that drives Buarque's novel, the divide between past and present, between memory and experience. Eulalio has been through a lot, starting with the death of his father, a leading conservative official, gunned down either by political opponents or the husband of a woman he seduced. Among the strengths of “Spilt Milk” is that we can read this equally as action and metaphor, a turning point for both the narrator and the culture in which he resides.
It's no coincidence that Eulalio's life echoes, to an extent, that of his country, for Buarque has long put politics at the center of his art. A well-known musician and playwright, he was imprisoned in the late 1960s by Brazil's ruling dictatorship and remained an outspoken critic of the regime after his release.
“Spilt Milk” is the fourth of his novels to be translated into English; when it appeared in Brazil, in 2009, it won two major literary awards. What's most remarkable about the book, though, is not that it somehow manages to internalize more than 100 years of Brazilian history but, rather, the way it also exists almost outside that history, outside of time.
That's because Eulalio is adrift, not just within his life but also in his memories, which shift and overlap, repeating throughout the novel like the choruses of a song. Warehoused in a derelict hospital, he moves back and forth between past and present, conflating characters and incidents, blurring the boundaries between what he imagines and what he recalls.
At the heart of everything is his wife, Matilde, with whom he fell in love at his father's funeral, a dark-skinned choir girl who may or may not be the daughter of another official. As “Spilt Milk” progresses, however, we start to wonder if, in fact, she ever existed as he recalls.
This is not to suggest that Eulalio is an unreliable narrator; he's as reliable as any centenarian taking stock of his life. Still, as he acknowledges, “(B)est take what I say with a pinch of salt; you know how I'm given to fancies. ... We old folks tend to repeat episodes from the past, but never with the same precision, as each memory is already a copy of a previous one.” That's a key point, one Buarque subtly reinforces with the structure of the novel, which takes the form of a series of connected monologues, each chapter written as a single paragraph to highlight how each incident or memory bleeds into the next.
As for Matilde, Eulalio can never fully locate her. Even when together, they were separated by class and breeding. “The orchestra didn't let up,” he observes, describing a party they attended, “the music was repetitive and the dance turned out to be vulgar; for the first time it struck me that the woman I'd married was slightly vulgar” — and in the decades since she left him, she has become a ghost.
At one point, he visits the convent school where they met as teenage lovers; no one remembers her ever having gone there. Later, he runs across her father, who is similarly oblique. “Matilde, Matilde, he said, and I noticed he had the same perplexed air as the mother superior, like someone looking for the glasses they've forgotten on top of their own head,” Buarque writes. “Ah, yes, Matilde, a coloured girl we brought up as if she were one of the family.”
Buarque is evoking class here, as well as Brazil's own scourge of slavery and racism. But more to the point, his focus is on recollection and how it works.
Even monuments are mutable, including the street in Rio de Janeiro named after his father. “Father, Eulalio Ribas d'Assumpçao, like the street behind the metro station,” he declares, tracing one specific residue of memory. “Though for two years he was a tree-lined square in downtown Rio, then the liberals seized power and renamed it after a caudillo from the South.” Even the most prominent among us fade into the mists of history, become footnotes, dead-end streets. The same is true of our inner lives, which disappear as we do, all our loss and love and longing little more than, yes, spilt milk.
And yet, the novel insists, this is neither good nor bad, just inevitable; hence, the title, with its implication that nothing is worth crying over. As Eulalio puts it, remembering the funeral of his grandson or great-grandson (he can no longer distinguish between them): “The gravediggers were in a bad mood, and when the coffin hit the bottom of the grave with a heavy thud, the muffled sound struck me as the end of the Assumpçao line. It was fine by me; I'd had enough.”
That's a tough sentiment but an earned one, and it infuses this vivid little book with tensile strength. At its heart is the idea that everything is an illusion, in which we cling most desperately to that which matters least. Class, status, breeding — all the things that pulled Eulalio away from Matilde — fade away, and we are left with what we least expect. “I have travelled the wide world, gentlemen,” Eulalio laments toward the end of the novel; “I have seen sublime landscapes, artistic masterpieces, cathedrals, but in the end my eyes have no memory more vivid than some seahorses on my bathroom tiles.”
David L. Ulin is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.