My German Brother  by  Chico Buarque  trans.  Alison Entrekin  (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2018)  Reviewed by  Chad Felix

My German Brother
by Chico Buarque
trans. Alison Entrekin
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2018)

Reviewed by Chad Felix

Deep within My German Brother, Chico Buarque’s rich and inventive new novel, the narrator Ciccio, the youngest son of a respected literary family, announces that he’s “almost beginning to believe the things [he] made up.” The statement’s directness underscores its starkness: because his older (Brazilian) brother is gone, their mother is grieving by constructing a world in which her eldest child is still alive, “now drinking hot chocolate in the Café Tortoni, now strolling through Plaza San Martín, now greeting a blind poet on Calle Maipú.” Ciccio plays along, making things up in an effort to soften the blow, half-believing.

It’s worth mentioning in a hurry that Chico Buarque has, or had, a German brother, and My German Brother is, according to the book’s flap copy, his “attempt to reconstruct through fiction his obsessive lifelong search for a lost sibling.” With just over 200 pages of text, My German Brother wastes absolutely no time in getting to where it’s going. More accurately, it wastes no time starting to get to where it’s going. It begins with Ciccio (a stand-in for Chico himself), the youngest son of the de Hollander family, flipping through an English edition of The Golden Bough, where he discovers a note addressed to his father, Sergio, and signed “Viele Grüße, Anne.” The note, “written in German and teeming with capital letters,” is as indecipherable to Ciccio as it is to the reader, even those who read German: the bulk of its message is represented as a series of periods. It’s a charming touch, and a brave one for the book’s very first page. A handful of other real-life documents will crop up throughout the book: documents that, preserved by Buarque’s mother, formed the basis of the research that went into the author’s own quest. Similarly, in the world of the book’s pages, the message will remain incomprehensible until Ciccio can find a German speaker willing to translate it. Ciccio, however intrigued, is forced to leave it for now. His mother is coming and his father’s books are forbidden to him.

Before page ten, Ciccio will have met up with his best friend Thelonius, stolen a car with him, abandoned it on the train tracks—“no big deal as far as Thelonius is concerned, since it was already running on empty”—and come back home to end up tucked into bed, drifting off to sleep and blending fiction and reality, recounting Anne’s letter to Sergio, his father:

I am suddenly in an Oldsmobile with Thelonius, who is driving me to a boarding school called Instituto Benjamenta, where the Austrian or Swiss friend, a ginger-haired lad who has so many pimples his face is red and swollen, this Deutsche-speaking friend reads the letter and laughs evilly with his monstrous mouth, with pimples invading his lips, with pimples on his tongue and gum even, and he really is an extremely sensitive, helpful young man, who translates Anne’s letter for me very slowly, explaining the meaning of each word, its origin, its etymology, in a voice so soft I can’t hear a thing, which sends me off to sleep.

The idea of Sergio Günther, the German brother, soon overtakes Ciccio (as, presumably, it did Buarque), primarily in his imagination. Despite there being no real evidence at this early moment in the novel that the brother truly exists or existed, Ciccio is all too eager to believe.

As Ciccio’s quest comes to involve questions of family, religious and sexual identity, literature, politics, music, and history, the novel’s central plot becomes equally engaging and complicated. If Ciccio’s hope to prove the existence of his German brother was all there was, that would be more than enough. But the story is interrupted by short, disruptive episodes, dream-like passages, imagined or real, that ultimately enrich and complicate the primary narrative, and Buarque’s literary project, in strange and mesmerizing ways. Which is to say: life intervenes.

At one point, while transporting a sheet of acid inside of a collection of Fernando Pessoa poems (“which has never been as useful in the classroom”), Ciccio watches as a man in the street is shot down by the police. He fantasizes about an overtly sexual piano lesson between himself and Anne, the author of the mystery letter. He fashions a ridiculously complicated plot by which he gets his revenge on his distant father by the publication of a long-gestating novel that discloses his father’s secrets and long-forgotten memories. In Ciccio’s mind, it is to be a book that shames and impresses his father simultaneously.

Most of these digressions are short, just long enough to remind readers that there’s a lot going on elsewhere, too. The alarmingly casual car theft scene in the novel’s opening is the first example of such detours, an indicator of the increasingly grave intrusions to come. As a result, the mystery of Günter, the German brother, unfolds in fits and starts, over several decades.

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“Novelist” might well be one of Chico Buarque’s least-known incarnations. Certainly he is an accomplished, hugely celebrated singer, songwriter, political activist, playwright, poet, and novelist. His career spans decades and forms, and it evades easy summary. His songs—socially-conscious but light on their feet—are undeniably his. His plays, radical and grotesque and juvenile (his word), are his plays. And his novels his novels, defiant and literary and self-referential and strange. This is to say that the songwriter who has been in the national spotlight since the early sixties, since he won a national popular music contest for his song “A banda,” is no dabbler. He’s no Sean Penn or Tom Hanks trying on a striking but ill-fitting hat. When writing a novel, he’s Chico Buarque: Novelist.

The first of his novels, Turbulence, was an intense political work about life under the fear, lawlessness, and disorder of Brazil’s military dictatorship, the very same dictatorship that pushed Buarque out of the country in 1969. Before My German Brother, he wrote Spilt Milk, a fiction that retells the history of Brazil from its founding through the haze and surreality of life in a hospital bed, from which the book’s narrator recounts his people’s history. But within his œuvre it is Budapest, from 2004, and My German Brother, that are especially remarkable. With them, Buarque interrogates the novel form—its presumptions—and, often, turns it in on itself. This is certainly true of the sublime Budapest, in which a hugely successful Brazilian ghost writer becomes obsessed with the idea of mastering Hungarian, “the only tongue the devil respects,” destroying and remaking his life in a new land and a new language along the way. Languages collide and disorient here; they share a story, but not without making themselves an essential part of it first. My German Brother delves into this same fertile ground of language and the acolytes thereof.

It is no accident that Buarque centers My German Brother in the de Hollander home, a place that—thanks to Ciccio’s bibliophile father—houses the second-largest collection of books in all of Brazil and frames the narrator’s world view. The home is creaky and cockroach-infested. A castle of world literature, its books are arranged in a manner incomprehensible to all but Assunta, the matriarch who dutifully responds to her husband’s frequent calls (“Assunta! Assunta!”) for this or that Homer, Mann, or Woolf. It’s from here that the men of the family—Sergio and his two sons—see the world. They appear to lead lives of relative ease; there’s no question they’re well-off. Sergio’s time, in particular, is his own, something made clear by his stated goal of reading every single book, if not in existence than in the collection (then and only then will he be able to write “the best book in tutto il mondo,” Assunta tells Ciccio). And while Ciccio is technically forbidden from reading his father’s books—this as a result of his shredding and pissing upon one of the collection’s rarest specimens, a first-edition Hans Staden—his entire life will be colored by their overwhelming presence. “For me,” a teenage Ciccio announces after we first meet him, “walls were made of books, without the support of which houses like mine would collapse.” He continues: “it was on books that I leaned, from the tenderest age, in moments of danger real or imagined.”

For the de Hollander men books are, in some ways, a crutch. Their high-minded isolation provides ample bookish quips but only a partial image of life that often leads to cruel behavior.

This is most obviously apparent in the sons’ insistent womanizing—a frequent trope in Buarque’s novels, and one that has not aged well in the four years between the book’s publication in Portuguese and its translation into English. Ciccio’s older brother is known to spend his afternoons waiting around the high school “where he always manages to sweet-talk some unsuspecting teenager with that voice of his…” Ciccio, for his part, is in the habit of approaching his brother’s discarded lovers and offering up himself as consolation.

This is not the only way in which the family’s world is detached from the outside world. Ciccio, attending college during the time of Brazil’s military dictatorship, finds himself criticized by fellow students for his “blasé attitude in a time of great political upheaval.” His response, of course, is literary: he starts carrying Das Kapital around with him wherever he goes, for all to see. For a brief moment you feel that Marx might stick. “I have fond memories of that union of ours,” Ciccio remembers, “where there were also art exhibitions, poetry recitals, singing, cachaça, and companionable young ladies.” Had he stayed in this particular world, My German Brother would be a very different novel. However, on the very next page, Ciccio recounts being harassed in the street, called an agitator, at which point he remembers he’s carrying the second volume of Das Kapital, drops it to the floor, and stomps on it, for all to see.

Such literary allusions fill the novel. When Ciccio’s childhood friend Ariosto (who had, in the book’s first pages, been his childhood friend Thelonius) is asked for a toast, he responds “I would prefer not to.” Earlier, Ciccio discloses to the reader that his very first word was “GOGOL.” At one point a cop named Jorge Borges raids the de Hollander home. To Buarque’s credit, he allows these little nods to be simply that. There isn’t a painting of a weathered sailor or ship in sight when Ariosto invokes Melville. And no one seems all that impressed by Ciccio’s belief that his first utterance into this cruel world was “Gogol” and not “goo-goo” like the rest of us.

It’s a strange combination, troubling literary detachment and the self-aggrandizing in-jokes that accompany it. Contrasting the de Hollander men’s characters against the bookish fare they so obviously delight in raises unsettling questions about the literary lives they lead. It’s telling that Sergio thinks that the perfect book comes from reading all the others, a task he might perform without even leaving the house.

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When Ciccio revisits the idea of maybe having a German brother, it’s out of desperation for attention. (Ciccio really does need some attention.) Out with Thelonius, and threatened by Udo, a new contender for his oldest friend’s devotion, Ciccio is drunk and infuriated by the easy, crass relationship between his oldest friend and this wise-cracking blond from Liechtenstein. Recovering from a daydream about his possible discovery in The Golden Bough, Ciccio blurts out: “I have a German brother, that’s right, a German brother.” He elaborates inventively, claiming to possess a photo of this German brother “performing the Nazi salute, with a swastika armband and everything.” None of this is true. “I don’t know where I’m getting all this from,” Ciccio admits to the reader. “I think I’m mixing up details from several period novels I’ve been reading.”

The intoxicated teenage boys end up sneaking around in the book stacks of Ciccio’s home, where Udo, who knows German, manages a “remarkably good translation . . . considering his state of inebriation and intellectual limits” of Anne’s letter. Ciccio’s remark is half-sarcastic, as the translation begins, “From your Silence I gather you are as always in your Books shipwrecked (immersed?).” It continues:

Desolate to steal from your Reading half a Minute, I write to inform you that our Son Sergio one Year of Again excellent Health turns today. A Photograph I promise to send at the First Opportunity, and certain I am that yourself in the Boy’s Mangokopf (mango head?) You will see.

And we will see.

Ciccio, ignited by this concrete evidence and thereby affirmed in his drunken bluster, spends the rest of the novel playing detective in his way—recklessly—going to great, questionable lengths to uncover the truth about his German brother, speculating and dreaming wildly the whole time, like a teenage Sebald on drugs. It’s a troubling, surreal journey taken. As Ciccio’s quest vibrates against Buarque’s, and as the old literary boys struggle and misbehave, My German Brother concludes—extremely satisfyingly, I’ll note—as a radical affirmation of fiction’s real knack for sticking in our heads and then spinning them around.

 

Chad Felix is an artist and a musician living in New York. A former bookseller, he now works in independent publishing.

Banner image by Presley Mills.