Spilt Milk

  • Chico Buarque
  • Grove Press
  • 192 pp.

An elderly man on his deathbed recounts a passionate life of love and loss, in a tale that’s poetically told and steeped in Brazilian culture.

Chico Buarque’s Spilt Milk is a book-length soliloquy recounted by Eulálio d’Assumpção, a Brazilian centenarian on his deathbed.  Bitter and dispossessed as a modern-day King Lear, Eulálio wanders a lonely internal heath assailed by storms of pain and memory. He addresses the reader directly as his nurse, his daughter, his late wife and his mother. Sometimes hallucinating, sometimes lucid, he raves, berates, entreats, charms and chastises; lapsing in and out of chronology and clarity.  He warns us “an old man’s memory cannot be trusted.”  But the reader does trust the teller of this tale and follows the bed-bound narrator’s review of his passionate life story. Buarque inhabits his protagonist and engages the reader as bedside audience.

A recognized singer, composer, poet, novelist, screenwriter, playwright and political activist, Buarque has received the Latin Grammy award and the Brazilian Prêmio Jabuti for his novel Budapeste. His father was an historian, his mother an artist and pianist; Buarque studied architecture before devoting himself to writing and music as vehicles for creative expression and political protest and resistance. Spilt Milk synthesizes Buarque’s many complementary gifts: the poet’s language, the dramatist’s pacing and the musician’s ear for the pulsing rhythm of speech.

Chico Buarque’s prose evokes the magical realism of Latin American authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, but this style is more one of heightened, distorted sensory realism, which aptly conveys the aging protagonist’s mind as it wanders and comes undone. Memories of sight and sound flood the narrator’s stream of consciousness, serving both as description and symbol.

Consider color, for example. Eulálio lures his wife with red arum lilies; his father’s mistress wears a sinister blue satin dress. Skin color conveys the political and social hierarchies of race, caste and class but also reveals how Eulálio perceives individuals: his “cinnamon” wife, his pale daughter who doesn’t tan, his black grandson, his great-grandson’s girlfriend with “caramel skin and breast white as cocaine.”

Or consider how music and silence echo throughout the story. Eulálio’s father is shot while listening to “a blind pianist play ragtime.” And after the murder, Eulálio’s pianist mother “practiced without a sound, merely brushing the keys with her fingertips.”

Buarque’s involvement in history and politics informs a story steeped in Brazilian culture and deeply rooted in locale. His protagonist is descended from a powerful family — so many streets are named for ancestors that he claims, “Rio de Janeiro looks like a family tree. If you don’t believe me have an errand boy go buy a map of the city.” Architecture serves as an extended metaphor: as his fortunes decline, Eulálio moves from the privacy and luxury of the family mansion to a chalet and finally to a “promiscuous apartment.”

This tale of remembered and misremembered love and loss will delight readers who enjoy Vladimir Nabokov and Mario Vargas Llosa. And anyone who has experienced or witnessed the loneliness of aging will appreciate Eulálio’s suffering of Lear’s “heart struck injuries.” The spilt milk of the title is the breast milk Eulálio’s wife washed down the sink before abandoning him and their infant daughter. That spilt milk represents his loss of all love, connection and sustenance. The last woman in his life is an anonymous nurse who hurries in and out on her rounds. He begs her to marry him, or at least not to leave his room, “without you I would starve to death.”

One easily imagines Buarque’s brief, intense novel transposed to the stage as a one-man tour de force for a venerable actor — or better yet, performed by the author accompanying himself with music of his own composition.

The book ends as the young nurse covers Eulálio’s eyes with a sheet. The curtain falls.


Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s fiction has appeared in journals including Iron Horse and The Massachusetts Review. Recipient of an M.F.A. from Bennington College and fellowships from VCCA, Campbell is presently at work on a novel set on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital.

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