Topics to make Brazil squirm

Larry Rohter – The New York Times, 12/23/2012

Francisco Buarque de Hollanda, known professionally as Chico Buarque, has had a curiously bifurcated artistic career. In his homeland, Brazil, he is considered the greatest songwriter of the past 50 years, a kind of Cole Porter crossed with Bob Dylan whose elegant compositions, written alone or with partners like Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Caetano Veloso, have become standards in the Great Brazilian Songbook.

But to the extent that Mr. Buarque is known at all in the English-speaking world his primary identity is that of a novelist with a cult following among more celebrated writers. “Spilt Milk” is his fourth novel, and it comes with the ringing endorsement not only of his friend José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel laureate who died in 2010 (a year after the book was published in Brazil) but also of fashionable younger American writers impressed by Mr. Buarque’s verbal dexterity, like Jonathan Franzen and Nicole Krauss.

Mr. Buarque’s writing style is strikingly different in the two realms, but his reputation is well earned in both. As a songwriter he tends toward lilting compositions that draw on bossa nova and samba, while as a novelist he is a master at generating discomfort, and in “Spilt Milk” he confronts the themes that make Brazil squirm, from the stain of slavery to the inferiority complex the country has historically felt when it compares itself to Europe.

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