Here is perhaps Chico Buarque’s oddest claim to fame: being ultimately responsible for the  name of Radiohead. As the Brazilian singer, songwriter, and novelist tells it, David Byrne heard his song “O último blues” (“The Last Blues”), which contains the line “na Rádio Cabeça”—literally, “on Radio Head.” This reportedly gave the title to the 1986 Talking Heads song “Radio Head,” which then in turn inspired the name of the band.

This is also probably among the least of his claims to fame, considering that Chico Buarque has become a living icon of Brazilian culture. For his seventieth birthday, back in June, he was the subject of countless homages and retrospectives, with an admiring piece on nearly every media outlet and birthday greetings and messages from a who’s-who of recording artists and other assorted personalities, along with crotchety condemnations from the odd contrarian or conservatives clucking about his leftist sensibilities. The only notably absent voice was from the man himself.

It is hardly surprising. From the (relatively rare) interviews he grants, it is clear that he never felt comfortable in the shoes of his legend. Francisco Buarque de Holanda, or Chico (as he will be referred to heretofore, given his unfailing unpretentiousness, and that of a country content to call its presidents by their first names when not by a nickname), seems to make a point to puncture the inflated image, to paint himself as just a guy devoted to his art, who also happens to love soccer and going to the beach.

But there is hardly any escape from the fact that he remains, after a decades-spanning career, a defining cultural touchstone. Even inevitable comparisons to Bob Dylan—another popular musician who breathed new life into traditional styles, often with countercultural themes—do not do justice to the depth and breadth of his talent, intellect, artistic sensibility, and influence on the following generation of musicians. A comparison to Lou Reed would also be apropos, although with a greater sense of history and politics, a connection to the land of his birth so strong that it is difficult to imagine Chico without Brazil, and impossible to imagine Brazil without Chico.

Chico’s musical influences are rooted firmly in his native country. At a time when rock ‘n’ roll was percolating through Brazilian pop culture, spawning a movement called the Jovem Guarda, or Young Guard (also known as iê-iê-iê, a Portuguese transliteration of yeah yeah yeah, as in “She loves you . . .”), Chico opted for looking back at the sambas that were the soundtrack of his youth: the music of Noel Rosa, Ismael Silva and the prolific Ataulfo Alves. To that he added the lyricism and harmonic complexity of Bossa Nova, which by his debut as a songwriter in the mid-sixties had already been around for nearly a decade.

He was already fairly well-known in the local São Paulo music scene when his first smash hit took everyone—including him—by surprise. It was 1966. He had decided to enter into a national popular music contest, the second of its kind, which was broadcast nationwide on the incipient medium of television. He narrowed the possibilities down to two songs, and showed them to three of his drinking buddies: Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and the writer and lyricist Torquato Neto. By a two-to-one vote, “A banda” (“The Band”), a song he had written in one sitting upon a flash of inspiration, was selected.

“A banda” tells of a marching band passing through a neighborhood, and how its passage brings a moment of respite and beauty in ordinary lives. It blends the rhythm of a samba march with the cool cooing of the Bossa Nova singers. It is one of his most idyllic songs, but even this is tinged with sadness—particularly at the end, when, upon the departure of the band, everything goes back to its place, “each one in his corner / in every corner its pain.” Love and beauty might have pervaded his entire oeuvre, but Chico’s music never descended into outright escapism. (“A banda” is, incidentally, one of the more accessible entry points into Chico’s discography.)

The actual events that led to “A Banda” sharing first place with Geraldo Vandré’s “Disparada” (“Stampede”) are shrouded in obscurity. What is known is that the crowd was bitterly divided among the songs, to the extent that the festival’s organizers were concerned about what might happen, no matter which song won. But according a number of witnesses, “A banda” was winning on votes—it was at Chico’s insistence that the contest was declared a tie, and the prize of about 15,000 dollars split between the two.

Tie or not, it was an undeniable victory for Chico, who immediately catapulted onto the national stage. On the very day of the victory, Chico had already signed an agent and scheduled more than thirty concerts around the country. The song also garnered praise from some of the leading public intellectuals of the day—and, what would become characteristic for his work, not in dry academic terms but with the utmost sincerity. The curmudgeonly playwright Nelson Rodrigues wrote that, upon listening to the song, he wanted to “go outside, sit on the curb and start to cry.”

 

Chico was not the only musician to look inward for inspiration rather than accept the foreign influence of rock ’n’ roll. In addition to Bossa Nova artists, still going strong, came the Tropicalia movement, which included Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, all of which united under the banner of MPB, Brazilian Popular Music, in conscious rejection of the encroaching electric sound. In 1967, the Bossa Nova singer Elis Regina issued a call to arms on live TV against the Jovem Guarda, and an intense rivalry broke out, fueled by a rejection of the “inauthentic” foreign sound. Elis organized a march against the “invading” sound. Despite the animating anti-Americanism, fueled by the rancor of US support of the new military government, the demonstration was halfhearted, and many key musicians, Chico included, gave it a pass. It was the same sort of us-and-them, black-and-white thinking that alienated him from certain elements on the left. The whole rivalry blew over that same year.

Still, Chico never had much in the way of positive things to say about rock ‘n’ roll. He was an inveterate sambista . Furthermore,  Jovem Guarda had brought teenage sentimentality to the Brazilian musical landscape, and despite his olive branch, this sentimental posturing has always been precisely the opposite of what Chico is all about.

This might be surprising given that his major musical influences, Bossa Nova and Samba, were no strangers to sentiment, and could at times be downright mawkish. But there is a certain raw emotion in Chico’s work, perhaps resulting from an unfailing sense of irony, of distance between him and his speaker, which has always been darker, less tame, unvarnished. Chico’s music is heartbreaking because he strips away all varnish, he peels all scabs. He turns our gaze directly at the suffering we would rather ignore.  

He is at his most melodramatic in one of his best-known songs, the narrative “Geni e o zepelim” (“Geni and the Zeppelin”). Found in his Ópera do malandro, in which Geni is played by a transvestite, it tells the story of a prostitute known for her kindness and for providing comfort to the downtrodden, and for that she is universally despised. “Hurl rocks at Geni!” goes the refrain, in a chorus of many voices. “Hurl shit at Geni!” One day, a mighty war zeppelin appears, and the captain disgusted with the moral decadence of the city, promises to destroy it—unless Geni, for whom he is overcome with desire, spends the night with him. She overcomes her disgust thanks to the plaintive cries of those who had always scorned her and saves the city—only to wake up to the chorus, “Hurl rocks . . .”

 Chico Buarque, 44, at Carnaval in 1989

Chico Buarque, 44, at Carnaval in 1989

And yet that suffering is often mingled with unironic joy. Perhaps the greatest example of this is “Vai passar,” something like “A banda” with greater political consciousness. “Vai passar” is written as a samba-enredo, the music to which the Carnaval floats (whose Portuguese name, “allegorical cars,” is so much more evocative) parade down the avenue. It follows the traditional form, with a massive percussion section and the distinct verses which cycle repeatedly (which in Carnaval repeats throughout each samba school’s parade), sung by a chorus with Chico’s voice playing the role of the puxador (“puller”), who leads the chorus and provides the occasional flourish. The lyrics, however, express the national grief of the dictatorship, that Brazilians “wandered blind through the continent / carrying stones like penitents / raising strange cathedrals” (the latter a reference to the so-called pharaonic projects of the dictatorship, among them the building of a new capital in a remote inland state). But the sadness does not negate the bliss of the celebration of the triumphant chorus: “And one day, at last / they had the right to a fleeting joy / a panting epidemic / called Carnaval, Carnaval, Carnaval . . .”

In stark contrast to these anthemic specimens stand his more intimate, domestic work which shows off his astonishing capacity to take on a female voice. Take, for instance, the 1966 song “Com açúcar e com afeto” (“With Sugar and Affection”), which he wrote for his friend, the singer Nara Leão (a significant chunk of his catalog consists of commissions). It is about a lonely woman whose husband spends his nights at bars, only to come back and be immediately forgiven by the doting wife. The lyrics are written with a light touch, an irony sympathetic to the ever-hopeful, ever-disappointed insistence of the wife. It is the real and pointed domestic tragedy, sung in breezy Bossa Nova notes.

Or take “Olhos nos olhos,” of 1976. “When you left me, my dear / you told me to be happy and take care / I wanted to die of jealousy, I almost went mad / but then, as usual, I obeyed.” The woman speaks to her former lover about having moved on—in that way like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which was to come out two years later. But Chico’s song has none of the bluster or bravado, but rather a quiet self-assurance, a palpable sense of liberation and inner strength.

 

With his focus on telling Brazilian stories, there was a particular character that populated a number of Chico’s songs. In Brazil, we don’t have anybody as iconic and mythic as the Founding Fathers. Instead, we have the malandro—literally, a kind of hustler, streetwise and amoral, a creature of appetite living by his wits, gambling, drinking and womanizing. He is not a hero, of course—he is much too self-serving for heroics. But he is also too compelling to be a villain. He is, instead, the transgressor who, regardless of selfish motives, is appealing in his disregard for the established rules of a dysfunctional system seen to favor only the wealthy and well-connected ever since the days of colonialism. In the Brazilian imagination, the malandro takes on a near-mythic role of the trickster.

Chico was never a literal malandro. He was not even from Rio de Janeiro, the city most traditionally associated with the figure. He was born into a respectable Carioca family, son of one of the most celebrated Brazilian intellectuals of his time, the historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda. (His father was overshadowed by his son’s success, and reportedly responded to rumors of writing his son’s songs by saying that if he had had the talent, he would himself long have been Chico Buarque.)

 Police photographs of Chico Buarque, 17, upon his arrest in 1961

Police photographs of Chico Buarque, 17, upon his arrest in 1961

But Chico had, from an early age, had something of the trickster in him. He was given to pranks, and the first picture of him ever published was taken during his arrest, at age 17, for joyriding. It is little surprise, then, that the malandro is a recurring character in Chico’s music. In “A volta do malandro,” in which he calls him “the baron of the rabble.” The song was featured in, arguably, the highest expression of the motif in Chico’s work: A Ópera do Malandro (The Malandro’s Opera), which featured “A volta do malandro.” The stage play was Chico’s take on The Threepenny Opera, and includes a Portuguese adaptation of “Mack the Knife” entitled “O malandro.”

The traditional folk character already had a significant presence in the sambas that played a formative role in Chico’s music. His role in the national folklore, however, goes back further. He is attested in Brazilian literature as early as the 1850s, with the proto-Realist novel Memoirs of a Police Sergeant, set in Rio half a century prior to its publication. The malandro is often considered both a symptom and a cause of Brazil’s problematic social order—since it’s the same immorality which, in the upper classes, gives the poor the short shrift.  This very sentiment is expressed in Chico’s “Homenagem ao malandro” (“Tribute to the Malandro”), in which he sings that that, wanting to write a samba about the malandro, he found that the old stock character no longer exists. Instead, Chico sings, there is the “regular, professional” malandro, candidates to political office, those who populate the social pages, with a “contract, tie and capital,” and who never get into trouble.

Still, problematic as he is, the malandro remains a magnetic character. A sense of oppression has long been part of the Brazilian national character, and the malandro is attractive in direct proportion to powerlessness. In times of stifling repression, the trickster is a prophet.

That’s why there is no writing about Chico Buarque without writing of the military dictatorship that took power in 1964 and held the country in its grasp until 1985. I was never alive for it. Having been born in 1987, I was just in time to be present for, but not much aware of, the first direct presidential elections since the fall of the regime, held in 1990. But like any Brazilian that has gotten an education, I learned in school about the 1964 coup.

The events precipitating the coup began with the resignation of President Jânio Quadros in 1961, citing “terrible forces” supposedly arrayed against him. Consensus holds, however, that it was an attempted power grab—that Quadros hoped to be ushered back into office with increased powers by popular appeal, in part relying on the general squeamishness about the leftism of his vice-president, João Goulart (popularly known as Jango).

If that was indeed his intention, it was an abject failure. Still, the Brazilian right was extremely wary of Goulart, who had been visiting Communist China at the time of the resignation. He gained the presidency only after negotiations which redefined the government as a parliamentary system, greatly circumscribing his powers as president. This was overturned by a referendum in 1963 which returned the powers of the president to Goulart. He soon announced a series of broad socialist reforms, which, whether through legitimate trepidation at the prospect of the coming changes or sabotage from a hostile opposition, immediately plunged the country into economic chaos. It was at this point, in 1964 that the military, under the pretext of checking a communist revolution and reinstating a democratic government on the next electoral cycle, took over.

This all—the facts—I learned at school and from books. But I learned to feel the dictatorship—the Repression, as Brazilians commonly call it—from Chico Buarque.

Chico was 21 at the time of the coup, a student at FAU, the architecture school at the university of São Paulo. He had, at age 14, taken part in the hyper-conservative Catholic Ultramontane movement—which he grew out of in part thanks to his exasperated parents’ intervention in sending him out of town to a boarding school. But in 1964, like so many college students, he was solidly leftist, a supporter of Jango. He was an enthusiastic participant in the student movements that rose up against the coup. Chico claims to have been prepared for armed combat, to the extent that he stockpiled empty bottles of spirits in his garage to make Molotov cocktails. These were fated to lie empty—the students never took up arms, a fact that Chico reportedly remembers with regret.

 Chico Buarque, 24, in the March of the One Hundred Thousand in 1968 © Folhapress

Chico Buarque, 24, in the March of the One Hundred Thousand in 1968 © Folhapress

Despite his convictions against the military government and his enthusiasm for a student revolt, Chico was not a card-carrying communist. In great part, it was his prankster self, the fun-loving, bohemian, trickster side that didn’t jibe with the Socialist and Communist partisans. They were too restrictive, too chatos, a Brazilian slang term that means at the same time boring and annoying, not coincidentally from the word for “flat.” Though willing to take up arms, Chico was not active in popular demonstrations. He attended the March of the One Hundred Thousand in 1968 because he felt that not attending would be tantamount to disapproval.

The reason that anyone even cared was that “A banda” had thrust him into national fame, and made him something of an institution. He was already seen as a game-changing artist who single-handedly reinvigorated the samba. The lack of political content in “A banda” also gave him a good-boy aura, which in 1967 he was already itching to shatter. This led him to write a provocative avant-garde play entitled Roda Viva (Live Wheel), which tells the story of a young singer chewed up by the machine of show business. According to the author himself, the play was flawed, juvenile venting. But his partnership in putting it on with director José Celso Martinez Corrêa made it something else altogether. Zé Celso, as he was known, espoused shocking, experimental theater—and so it was with Roda Viva, with Chico’s full support. The play featured a gyrating Virgin Mary and a scene in which the actors, simulating the devouring of the young singer, ripped apart a cow’s liver, spewing blood and guts on the audience.

 Photograph of a performance of  Roda Viva , 1968

Photograph of a performance of Roda Viva, 1968

The play ran successfully for a short season in Rio, starting in January 1968, to the utter confusion of Chico’s fans, who expected something at least somewhat akin to his still-recent big hit. In July, after moving to São Paulo, the production was attacked by a far-right terrorist group, the Command for the Hunting of Communists (CCC), who, according to media reports, savagely beat several cast members and vandalized the theater. After another attack by the same group in the city of Porto Alegre, the whole thing was called off.

This play was Chico’s debut as a playwright, but the episode was also significant in the role it played after another dark moment in Brazilian history. On December 13 of that same year, the dictatorship decreed the Institutional Act Number 5 (AI-5), which suspended a number of civil liberties, including habeas corpus in the case of political crimes. In short, the AI-5 gave the dictatorship teeth, which would inevitably be turned against its cultural enemies. Chico watched the announcement with actor and director Hugo Carvana, who aptly said, “We’re fucked.”

Chico was warned by friends that his name was “on a list,” and he was brought in for questioning less than a week later due to his involvement in anti-government demonstrations, his defense of Fidel Castro and the provocations of Roda Viva—of the latter, the authorities were particularly concerned about a supposed scene in which an actor defecated into a helmet. The latter was a mistake—the scene had actually featured in a different play. Chico was released, apparently on a whim, but the event set the tone for decades of wrangling between Chico and the regime.

At that moment, spooked and with a European tour scheduled for the beginning of 1969, Chico and his wife, the actress Marieta Severo, who was pregnant at the time, obtained official permission and left the country on January third. With continuous reports of artists being imprisoned back home, they decided to stay abroad. The couple’s daughter, Sílvia, was born in Rome that March.

The exile lasted into the following year, and became professionally frustrating, with a few highlights—he recorded an album with Ennio Morricone (Per un pugno di samba, or For a Fistful of Samba—a takeoff from the Sergio Leone film whose soundtrack Morricone had composed), and with his friend, the musician Toquinho, helped write “Samba de Orly,” a melancholy song of exile, addressed to a friend leaving Europe for home. “If you can,” it ends, “send me some good news.” The latter song was supposedly finished on the day before Toquinho left for Brazil, in November of 1969. With the misconception that the political climate back home had cooled significantly, Chico returned towards the beginning of 1970.

Things were at least as bad as when he had left, and it was fortunate that Chico took the advice of Vinicius de Moraes and “made noise” upon his return, with a TV special and a series of concerts. Fear of the dictatorship, and of the constant disappearances of the enemies of the regime, reigned back in his homeland.

This period was Chico’s true coming of age. Now a father, he felt a renewed personal responsibility. And while he was never a specifically politically engaged—his artistic vision was primarily one of bearing witness—this new sense of responsibility, and his fame as a singer, brought with it the need to speak out against the dictatorship. Chico did this in his own way, with the song “Apesar de você” (“In Spite of You”).

It begins: “Today, you call the shots / What you say, goes / There’s no discussion, no . . .” Ostensibly, the song was about an overbearing lover—so Chico later claimed under interrogation. But the parallels with the dictatorship are so clear that Chico said he had submitted it to the government censors half out of spite, certain that it would never make it through. But somehow it did, and sold around one hundred thousand copies before the military government caught on. The record was pulled from stores, the factory was shut down and every copy in stock was destroyed—but not, significantly, the master copy. Still, Chico, in characteristic jocularity, claimed it was not about the “General,” the president Emílio Garrastazu Médici, but some “generality.”

Plausible deniability aside, the meaning of the song is clear. “My people, these days, have been talking sideways and looking down,” he sings. “All this repressed love / this contained cry / I will collect with interest, I swear” (here, the Portuguese for “interest,” juros, and “I swear,” juro, blend into a clever pun). The refrain is a triumphal chorus of many voices—“In spite of you, tomorrow will be another day.” It felt—and still feels—like an anthem, and yet with a solid connection to the felt emotions of people on the ground.

“Apesar de você” might have made it past the censors, but it brought on a period of renewed and furious attention on Chico. He says he received yearly menacing New Years’ cards from the CCC, as well as countless anonymous threats. But it was from the censors that he had the most trouble. Most of the vetoed lyrics were excised not because of their political content, but because they were found obscene or offensive to the national character. Chico would purposely write ironic compliments to the censors in his lyrics, which were removed, and loaded his songs with foul words, hoping that something would squeak through.

Such was the situation that when he wrote, in 1973, with Gilberto Gil, one of his most haunting songs, Cálice, (Chalice). He had exactly zero hope that the song would survive the censors’ pen. The refrain goes: “Father, move away from me this chalice,” repeated three times, each time more plaintively, and then, “of red wine made of blood.” The Portuguese Cálice, however, sounds like cale-se, “be quiet” or “shut up.” The song is a visceral cry, packed with brutal images of repression and a yearning for release so powerful as to be destructive. Towards the end of the song, a chorus of voices echoes the cale-se, evoking the repressive voice of the dictatorship.

Following “Cálice” was another play, Calabar, written with the writer and director Ruy Guerra, which was ready for opening night when it was summarily and without explanation shut down by the censors. Aware that his name had become poison, Chico concocted a pseudonym, Julinho da Adelaide. It is a testament to his bottomless reserve of good humor that he gave a number of hilarious interviews in character, alleging that he would not appear in public because he was too ugly. The charade was exposed by a newspaper soon enough, so Chico killed off the character (the revelation would lead the censors to demand identification from all artists submitting material from then on), but not before he released two more songs under the pseudonym. Among them was “Acorda amor” (“Honey, Wake Up”), in which the speaker, woken up by a late-night visit from the police, the kind that made people “disappear,” in desperation, says, “Call . . . call . . . call . . . ,” as if considering the question until finally hitting upon, “call the thief!”

The Repression began to loosen its hold around this time, but many of Chico’s friends remained in exile, and he wrote another song on the subject—this time, set in Brazil, as if speaking to a friend abroad. “My dear friend, I wanted to write you,” he sings at one point, “but the postal service has been feisty.” Part of the refrain is absurdly mundane, relating that, back home, they are “playing soccer,” that sometimes it rains and sometimes it’s sunny, reflecting how anything more substantive would not make it past the censors, before launching into a frank assertion: things are bad, we keep going out of sheer doggedness, and, circumspectly by way of wordplay, we are constantly being screwed.

Exhausted as much by the pressure of being an icon of the counterculture, a mantle he always wore unwillingly and uncomfortably, as by the censorship, Chico took a break from his musical career, until the oppression of the dictatorship seemed to wane. It was during this time that he wrote his first longer work of fiction. That novella, Model Farm (a clear echo of Animal Farm), skewered the military dictatorship and its nationalistic projects. But Chico was never primarily a political artist, and rejected the easy dichotomy of being politically engaged and being alienated. His political work was a reflection of the dire necessity of the time, and he saw the protest song as just another of life’s inexorable realities that pepper his work. But it was exactly his sensitivity to the despair, to the loss, to the deeply human cost of the dictatorship that was never flattened by political categories, that made him perhaps its greatest articulator. To borrow a phrase from Art Spiegelman, Chico Buarque’s music bleeds history.

 

It was the sort of thing that only really happens in Brazil. Earlier this year, a high school teacher, in a fit of provocation, referred to funk singer Valesca Popozuda on a multiple choice test as “a great philosopher.” Valesca Popozuda (which translates, unsubtly, to Big-Butted Valesca) is the current sensation in Carioca funk (which has only the name in common with its American counterpart). She is a bawdier and more confrontational Beyoncé, with lyrics that are shockingly explicit even by the standards of the genre, not exactly known for its blushing decorum (for those familiar with it, think Khia’s “My Neck, My Back”).

The teacher’s intention was for the media to pick up the story from the beginning in order to make a point that negative stories get more traction than positive ones. At this point, Valesca became more a symbol than a singer. The story played just the right strings to precipitate a social media brushfire that cuts at the core of Brazil’s political and intellectual divide. The more conservative elements did the usual Chicken Little where-is-this-world-coming-to routine, decrying the precipitous cultural decline brought about undoubtedly by leftist forces. The younger and more progressive strained to justify the appellation of great thinker, generally implying when not outright stating that the only reason anyone might object to the characterization is the fact that she sings funk, a musical genre strongly associated with the favela culture of the lower classes (although some, improbably, claimed that the problem was in fact gender discrimination). The teacher at the center of the controversy himself made the same point. “If I had brought in Chico Buarque,” he said, “the test would have been considered more intellectual than provocative.”

 Chico Buarque, 27, with a mustache and guitar in 1971.

Chico Buarque, 27, with a mustache and guitar in 1971.

Indeed. Chico has been an institution from the time his first big hit exploded on the national scene in 1966, and has now become one of the elder statesmen of Brazilian popular music, along with Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the latter of which brushed with actual statesmanship as the Minister of Culture under President Lula. But all institutions are emblems, and as such, Chico has become a sort of political shorthand for partisan hacks on either side—from the right for his lifelong support of the Castro regime in Cuba and a number of other leftist causes, and from the left for symbolizing the “real music” which to the haters of current popular forms like funk the latter is not.

But Chico never really changed. Only the world around him did. The method is the same as it always had been in his music: careful observation, precise and evocative language, an astoundingly empathetic capacity, and an intractable refusal to sugarcoat. And ultimately, his prose reveals the artist that Chico seems to always have wanted to be—not a symbol or a standard-bearer, both of which roles he stumbled into inadvertently, but someone there simply to bear witness, to offer up a point of view, to expand the readers’ horizons of possibility, sometimes with no further purpose than saying, Look, look at this.

While it might be said that this is the path that Chico took when he started writing novels, around 1990, this seems to always have been the case with his prose. In his first published work, a 1963 short story entitled Ulisses and published in the literary supplement of a major São Paulo newspaper , Chico recasts Homer’s Ulysses as a traveling salesman. This sad-sack Willy Loman type returns home with all the enthusiasm of the Greek hero to find a Penelope cold and indifferent to his gifts and stories of his travels.

While he was concerned with contributing to a distinctly Brazilian culture, in part that always meant importing the culture of other times and places with a local and modernist perspective. The Opera do Malandro is, of course, another such work. The short story also anticipated his 1975 play Gota d’Água (The Last Drop, or “the straw that broke the camel’s back”), a retelling of the story of Medea set in a Rio housing project. Despite its source material, it is an essentially Brazilian work, reflecting the concerns and tribulations of the urban poor.

His first novel, Turbulence, already bears the characteristics that would resurface in his future literary works—circularity, a narrative built out of impressions, reversals and the familiar made alien. It is the story of an unnamed protagonist in a world that is persistently hostile and utterly incomprehensible. This character, like Chico, comes from relative wealth, and it is a world and a point of view which would be entirely too familiar, of the upper-middle-class upbringing. He lives between two worlds: the posh world of his sister, living in a fancy house in a gated community, giving him money with a calculated carelessness that shows how little she needs it; and the world of the family farm, left to him by his parents, but which during his prolonged absence has been taken up by violent criminals. Having neither the money of his parents nor the experience of being poor, he has nowhere to go, and in consequence wanders from place to place, returning alternately to the farm and his sister’s and thus drawing out the general dysfunction of the system.

The plot, to the extent that Turbulence has one, is a noir of sorts. The nameless central figure goes from place to place trying to evade a mysterious figure, going to his sister, his ex-wife and the old family farm occupied by criminals, where he is respectively scorned, despised and assaulted. But rather than the fallen heroism of the noir detective, trying to retain a sliver of goodness in a corrupt world, the protagonist of Turbulence has little sense of what’s even going on, and even less of agency, planning or follow through. He is carried by whims and circumstance, which is emphasized by the present-tense narration—one of his most animating motives is the need to urinate. It is clear (as if it weren’t from his previous work) that Chico will have no truck with the puerile demand of “likable” characters.

There is a tendency to ghettoize the Latin American novel, to see it as nothing more than a reflection of its culture, to tsk tsk over the dysfunction of Brazilian society. And of course Turbulence reflects and comments on the society in which it is set. The book does skewer the upper middle class and bear witness to poverty. It is undeniably one possible reading of the book. But to put it in such a box is to deny it the universality to which it aspires—which, through the specific, evokes a sense of alienation and dislocation which finds its peers in the best international narrative—Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, to take another work that builds similarly on the noir genre.

It is perhaps with full consciousness of this that Chico turned away from social themes in his third novel, Budapest.  It is a truly remarkable novel, most reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges, mesmerizing in its obsessions with mirror images, illusions and shadow selves. The story revolves around a prolific ghost writer, José Costa, an unassuming name for an unassuming man, like most of Chico’s protagonists. He makes a living out of self-effacement in everything but the annual ghostwriter’s conference, where he receives the praise that normally goes to the public figures under whose name his writing is published. 

He suffers from terrible writer’s block as he attempts to create the memoir of a German businessman from a series of interminable and tedious recordings. He jettisons the German’s stories, instead writing an entirely fictional account of a man who wrote stories on women’s bodies. Upon turning in the manuscript, intrigued by the language he once heard on a television with international channels, he goes to Budapest for one of his ghostwriter conferences, leaving behind his wife and child. There, he becomes infatuated with his Hungarian teacher, Kriska, who, mishearing him the first time, calls him Zsoze Kósta. He begins an affair with her, but eventually grows restless there as well, and returns to Rio.

 Brazilian editions of Chico Buarque's books, including an edition of  Budapest  with Buarque's name on front cover and a mirror-image back cover bearing Zsose Kósta's name.

Brazilian editions of Chico Buarque's books, including an edition of Budapest with Buarque's name on front cover and a mirror-image back cover bearing Zsose Kósta's name.

In Rio, he discovers that the novel he wrote for the German has become a hit, garnering him fame and fortune. The book is everywhere, and he is commissioned to write another one. Faced with an increasingly indifferent wife and burdensome son, he leaves again for Budapest and takes up with Kriska once more. There, he devotes his days in the Academy of Letters to learning Hungarian to the most exacting standards, until he is able to write a book of poems—which he promptly gives to an aging, mediocre poet to publish under his own name. He then is forced to return to Rio, where his wife has moved on, his son has grown into a neo-Nazi, and the book he wrote for the German has been entirely forgotten, replaced by another sensation with bears, like the German’s book (and, one might add, the Brazilian edition of Budapest), a mustard-yellow cover.

And so on. The book continues, with constant doublings and repetitions, returns and re-returns, until Rio and Budapest are mixed up and he is unsure whether he is José Costa or Zsoze Kósta, where the parallels build up between his life in Rio and his life in Budapest, where patterns are repeated and inescapable. This is, of course, reminiscent of Turbulence, but is here taken to more absurd levels of uncanny reflections, repetitions and illusions.

Not incidentally, one of the most reported facts regarding the novel when it was first published was the fact that Chico had never set foot in Budapest. More than just a curiosity, the admission is itself best understood as an extension of the novel, in which author and character blend together and which puts authenticity in the spotlight. It is impossible to resist expanding the reading to his own life as well, the disconnect between Chico’s public image, the expectations that were heaped upon him, and him as he really is, unknown to us, the public. And thus, Budapest invites us into a never-ending spiral of metafiction, a labyrinth that spills out into real life.

In his latest novel, Spilt Milk, from 2009, Chico reaches back—way back, and in more ways than one. It is the story of an old man and his family, from the founding of the colony. Through the lens of this man and his family, Chico recounts the history of Brazil. He also reaches back atavistically towards his father, the historian who helped explain Brazil. And literarily, he reaches back to the nineteenth century Realist movement.

Realism was contemporary with Victorian literature, but where the latter generally affirmed bourgeois values, the former took it as a subject of scorn, espousing the specific program of laying bare the hypocrisy and viciousness that underlay the newly emerged class.

Before this time, Brazilian literary prose was largely derivative, but Realism brought some of the first great Brazilian literary voices. Spilt Milk owes plenty to perhaps the greatest of these, if not the greatest of all Brazilian authors: Machado de Assis. The style is strikingly similar; a life story is retold in episodes by an unlikable and often unreliable narrator without much concern for a strong central plotline. Spilt Milk even echoes some of Machado de Assis’ most memorable characters. Eulálio calls to mind the eponymous narrator of Bras Cubas and his relationship with his wife is reminiscent of that of Bento and Capitu in Dom Casmurro.

Spilt Milk is the story of Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção, as told from a dingy hospital bed. His double last name, the d’ and the archaic spelling of the last name Assunção mark him immediately as very old money, connected to the old colonial Portuguese aristocracy. He may be penniless now, but in his mind he is above the current circumstances of his poverty—he is the proverbial temporarily-embarrassed millionaire, except that he is hardly embarrassed. He hits on the hospital nurse, promising to install her in various properties he no longer owns and some of which don’t even exist anymore, as he rambles endlessly about his life, each chapter a solid, unbroken block of text, telling repetitive and contradictory stories, with countless mixed-up ancestors and descendants of the same name, Eulálio, with the delusion that the nurse will record the story for posterity. Through the haze of his memories, the story takes shape.

The book is a tour of the particular prejudices of Brazilian society. Anyone who has spent any time with the upper classes of Brazil knows an Eulálio, bankrupt old money still utterly convinced of its superiority. He is the spoiled upper class, overturning a plate of food in the hospital because his steak had gristle in it. He declares himself free of racism (a blatant and characteristically Brazilian hypocrisy) while denying that his wife, of mocha skin and curly hair, has any Black ancestry, convincing himself that her features were rather of Moorish stock by way of Spain. He convinces himself that his great-(or was it great-great-?)grandson’s girlfriend, with the tattoos, bare midriff and pierced navel, is genuinely interested in him. That a whip is his most prized family heirloom, surviving generations in his family, is hardly surprising, symbolic as it is of the viciousness that underlies the power of the historical Brazilian aristocracy.

 Chico Buarque upon his 70th birthday in 2014

Chico Buarque upon his 70th birthday in 2014

It is a powerful novel, but like his other novels, it still lives in the shadow of his musical career, and may never reach the emotional potency of his songs. Chico’s music, in the sixties and seventies, answered an urgent calling. People needed to feel through them, whether it was the sorrow of the Repression, the economic hardships of the working class, the travails of despised groups, or just the everyday disappointments of life. They needed release and joy, too, in gloomy times—as “A Banda” more than any other song demonstrates—but which was never escapist, always grounded. They needed a voice for everything that was stuck in their throats. The artist breaks the silence. The artist gives words to the feelings of others. “What is it that happens to me,” he sings, in the more visceral of two versions of the 1976 song “O que será,”

That burns me from inside, is it what is it
That disturbs my sleep, is it what is it
That all the tremors come to churn within me
That all the ardor comes to stir within me . . .
What has no shame, nor ever will
What has no government, nor ever will
What has no judgment.

But what happens when the message isn’t urgent anymore? What happens when most people are ready to put the artist on the shelf among the great and stuffy classics of the past? Chico’s music is as good today than it ever has been, and his novels are masterworks on par with the best literary novelists of the age, but there is no longer any urgency (if ever there was) in his politics or in his music. There are fresher sounds out there, and the leading edge of the cultural tastemakers urge us to listen to the bold and innovative sounds coming out of funk and hip hop.

What is the artist for? This crucial question has been kicking around in Western philosophy at least since Plato, who incidentally had a dim view. To Plato, poetry was to be subject to virtue, which in the city taken as a whole was synonymous with politics. If there was such a thing as good art, it was that which served virtue, and politics. But the artist cannot be at home in someone else’s rigid scheme. When squeezed and boxed, art (and its maker) breaks through, and breaks out.

And so you have Chico Buarque—not the monument that has been erected in his place in Brazilian culture, but as expressed in his work. And while his work, musical and literary, retains that strange, ineffable power to cut to the souls of things with enduring simplicity, he will not cease to be relevant.

Today, he is reportedly not in his Rio apartment but rather holed up in Paris, watching the World Cup on television and working on his fifth novel, due out later this year. It’s an appropriate locale for his writing. Brazilian literature is widely regarded to have picked up steam with Romanticism, which like the later Realism, was doubly transplanted, first from France to Portugal, already a peripheral nation that was then a shadow of its former glory, and then from Portugal to Brazil. Going to France is thus a return of sorts to the very origins of Brazilian literature, to the onetime center of Western culture. Nothing could be more emblematic of the transformation of the quintessential Brazilian singer into the global artist that he is today.


Caio Camargo is a writer based in Brazil.


Banner image: Chico Buarque by Bel Pedrosa, courtesy Grove Atlantic