My German Brother by Chico Buarque: History Sans Passion
Chico Buarque may be considered, at least in terms of cultural significance, to be the Brazilian equivalent to Bob Dylan in the States or Serge Gainsbourg in France. Like Dylan and Gainsbourg, Chico Buarque is situated at the intersection of music, politics, and literature. For Dylan’s “Death of Emmett Till” and Gainsbourg’s farcical Nazi 50s rock-and-roll satire album Rock Around the Bunker, bossanovista Buarque released “Apesar de você (In Spite of You)”, his critique of Brazil’s militaristic regime which somehow made it past government censors. Bob Dylan penned the experimental prose poetry collection Tarantula. Serge Gainsbourg pulled Evguenie Sokolov, a prolonged fart joke of a novella, out of his ass. And Chico Buarque has written a number of novels, the most recent being My German Brother (O Irmão Alemão).
Spanning multiple decades, My German Brother is thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction which follows protagonist Ciccio de Hollander’s mission to track down a long-lost brother Sergio, the result of an affair between his Brazilian father and a German fraulein in the 1930s. The story is woven in with the displacement of WWII, through leftist disappearances during Brazil’s military dictatorship, and into the modern age of social media. Over time, the distinction between Chico Buarque’s alter-ego and himself dissipates until they become practically indistinguishable by the end of the text. The novel is set largely inside Ciccio’s family home, kept structurally and metaphorically intact by his father’s robust private library which functions as a source of identity for Ciccio and his father.
The family secrets housed in the bookshelves are carefully attended to and arranged by Ciccio’s mother, and what results is an isolated atmosphere which drives Ciccio to seek out a sense of family due to the estrangement and lack of acceptance he feels at home. Ciccio evolves into an ancestry-obsessed old man, who seems to find his sense of self in sorting through family history and placing people in their proper time and place. His pursuit is paradoxical: as he uncovers more about his lost brother’s history and his father’s past, he loses more and more of the people around him. What he may have felt of romantic love becomes debased to pornography. He ostensibly knows more details about his family; he is severed from human connection.
An easy parallel can be drawn to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (Los Detectivos Salvajes): both books are steeped in reverence of literary giants, have characters who (attempt to) use knowledge of literature as a cultural currency, and flow somewhat haphazardly through time in plots driven by the search of individuals who are more real in the imaginations of their pursuers than in reality. An excerpt from Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez’s translation of “Sea Breeze (Brise Marine)” by Stéphane Mallarmé, in essence a summary of The Savage Detectives: “Sad flesh. And I’ve read all the books… Fuck this. Steamship tipping your mast, Lift anchor for nature’s exotics!” The Savage Detectives resolves with a sense of “Fuck it, just live your life, none of it matters,” and questions the pedantry of the literary crowd. In comparison, My German Brother falls flat thematically. It does not ask the reader to question their relationship to pride and academic escapism, does not implore the embrace of human experience. Ciccio is eventually able to find what came of his brother, but this revelation is little more than an entry on ancestry.com. He does not mourn what he has lost over the years.
I personally can’t decide if I think Chico Buarque laments the loss of human connection in his protagonist alter-ego or if he is relieved to see a conclusion to a lifetime preoccupation. My German Brother delivers a tragic account of a man who outsources his sense of self and uses literature as a social tool rather than as a form of human discovery. Yet if Buarque was aware of this estrangement, he does not directly condemn his protagonist in the text, rarely succumbing to self-criticism or self-reflection. The novel is matter-of-fact in its account of historical events, not batting an eye at the disappearances of the protagonist’s best friend and brother at the hands of the military dictatorship. From reflection on the text, whether or not it is Buarque’s intention, arises a question of what is lost in emotional dissociation. Stripped of human passions which would typically result from war, loss, and love, the self is decontextualized and the forces of history lose their significance.