My German Brother is a novel from renowned Brazilian musician and author Chico Buarque about a man’s lifelong search for his possibly imaginary half-brother. In 1960s São Paulo, teenage Ciccio finds a decades-old letter inside one of his father’s books, revealing an affair his father had while in Nazi-era Berlin. Ciccio becomes convinced the affair led to the birth of a child who vanished into the chaos of the war. Ciccio’s quest to find his brother turns into an obsession, as he constructs fantasies of this mysterious German brother and the many trajectories his life could have taken. Buarque takes us into the mind of a narrator whose dreams of what was and what might have been at times supplant reality.
Insect wings, a ten mil-réis banknote, calling cards, newspaper clippings, scribbled-on scraps of paper, pharmacy receipts, patient instructions for sleeping pills, for sedatives, for painkillers, for flu tablets, for artichoke-leaf extract; pretty much everything is in there. And ashes; shaking one of my father’s books is like blowing into an ashtray. This time I was reading a 1922 English edition of The Golden Bough, and when I turned page thirty-five I came across an envelope addressed to Sergio de Hollander, Rua Maria Angélica, 39, Rio de Janeiro, Südamerika. The sender was a certain Anne Ernst, Fasanenstrasse 22, Berlin. Inside the envelope, a letter typed on a tattered sheet of yellowing foolscap:
Berlin, den 21. Dezember 1931
Deinem Schweigen entnehme ich
Written in German and teeming with capital letters, the only part I understand is the beginning and the name Anne in rightward-sloping handwriting. I know that as a single man my father lived in Berlin between 1929 and 1930, and it isn’t hard to imagine him having an affair with a local Fräulein. In fact, I seem to remember talk of something more serious. I think a while back someone said something about a child he’d fathered in Germany. It wasn’t an argument between parents, which a child never forgets; rather, it was like a whisper behind a wall, a quick exchange of words that by rights I couldn’t have heard, or couldn’t have heard right.And I forgot about it, as I shall forget about this letter in the book, which I need to put away in the back row of the double bookcase in the hallway. I need to put it in its exact place, as Father doesn’t like me handling his books; much less this one. But I see Mother squatting at the foot of the bookcase, looking for a title Father has sent her to fetch. She won’t take long, as it is she who organizes his library according to an indecipherable system, knowing full well that he’ll be lost if she dies. And no sooner has she scurried to the study with her quick little footsteps, four thick volumes stacked under her chin, than I hurry over to put mine away. I know it was on that shelf above my line of sight, behind the Portuguese poets, a palm’s width to the right of La Comédie Humaine, but it won’t be easy to find its place again. By now the books have already spread out to press against one another at the back of the shelf; they seem to grow plump when confined. On tiptoes I push aside a Bocage in the front row, then grope the spines of the two Brits that were on either side of mine. There’s something erotic about parting two tightly shelved books with my ring and index finger to force The Golden Bough into its rightful slot.
It wasn’t an argument between parents, which a child never forgets; rather, it was like a whisper behind a wall, a quick exchange of words that by rights I couldn’t have heard, or couldn’t have heard right.
When I get to Thelonious’s house he is waiting for me at the gate with a torch and a piece of wire bent at one end. We roam the tree-lined streets of the neighbourhood until nightfall, when we chance upon a Skoda conveniently parked on the corner of a poorly lit slope. I place my hands on the window like a pair of suction cups, forcing it down, and the glass gives about ten centimetres. Enough for Thelonious to stick the wire in, hook it around the lock and pull it up, which he’s a pro at. I ask to drive, release the handbrake, let the Skoda roll down the hill and before I’ve even hit the kerb Thelonious is practically lying at my feet with the torch in his teeth and his head under the dashboard. He removes some parts that I can’t see, connects some wires, and after a few pops and sparks the engine starts up. I accelerate, change gears, redline in second, make a tight curve, careen around the edge of the cemetery with squealing tyres, and as we head downhill towards the city centre Thelonious praises my manoeuvres with a grunt and a thumbs up, more concerned with rummaging through the glove box, the torch in his mouth. I think the best part of climbing into an unknown car, besides smelling its interior, familiarizing yourself with its quirks, sinking your backside into the seat, running your hands over the steering wheel and testing its responsiveness, is rooting through the glove box and finding, among other things, a document with the name, date of birth and photograph of the owner. I prefer it to be a man. I get more pleasure out of driving another man’s car and I like to stare at the goofy faces they generally have on their documents. And I’d pay to see the expressions on their faces the moment they realize their car is missing, their mugs as they examine the mugs of thieves down at the police station. I feel a little sorry for the women, though, perhaps because I imagine them traipsing back and forth through the city unsure of where they left their cars, like frazzled mothers searching for sons who haven’t come home. On Rua Aurora, Thelonious makes me pull over beside two old whores and asks if they’d like to get in, just to go for a spin in the car, no strings attached. He gives up on the working girls, jumps out, makes me scoot over and takes the wheel. He zigzags through cobbled streets to lose a police car that he swears he saw tailing us. But on an avenue in the East Zone that I’ve never seen before, he teaches me to listen to the car’s engine, to feel its torque, to pinpoint the lapse during which it’s possible to change gears without having to step on the clutch. It’s a matter of downbeat and upbeat, he says, like jazz. He demonstrates the transition a few times, but what I hear is almost invariably the irritated squeal of metal on metal. We cross a railway line and, after a lurch, Thelonious discovers that the car is now forever stuck in third. He runs red lights, weaves around Sunday drivers, trying to maintain his speed until he is forced to brake behind a tram, which causes the engine to splutter and die. We abandon the Skoda right there on the tramline, which is no big deal as far as Thelonious is concerned, since it was already running on empty. We haven’t any money for the fare and it takes us a good few hours to get back on foot because along the way there isn’t a single decent car begging to be taken. We cross gloomy parts of town with factories, warehouses, tenements, closed garages and shops. We walk down crooked alleyways that lead us to a viaduct that ends in the centre of São Paulo, with its deserted streets, its skyscrapers in darkness. We then come to a traditional upper-class district, with English cars in the garages of houses that I’ve always thought too big for the land they sit on, which must seem even bigger on the inside than they do on the outside. And which, having such austere facades, must be fancier on the inside, more vibrant on the side where the people live. Climbing through the window of a house like that must be what it feels like for my father to open an old book for the first time.
It’s after midnight when Thelonious and I part ways on the street corner between our houses, from where I can see the light on in Father’s study. I climb the stairs holding my shoes so I won’t have to give Mother any explanations, or wake her if she is asleep. In the hallway I catch a glimpse of the bookcase out of the corner of my eye and on the way to my room I pass the always-open door of the smoky study, where I think I see my brother and father sitting side by side. I get into bed fully dressed, then realize I’ve left the light on. But it’s OK, I think, I can cover my face with the blanket, and underneath it’s neither hot nor cold. It’s a good place to think about my friendship with Thelonious, which reminds me of my father with my brother, who comes and goes from the study as he pleases but only reads comics, which reminds me that one day I might reveal to Father that I sort of managed to read half of War and Peace in French, and that now, with the help of an English dictionary, I was labouring through The Golden Bough before I came across the German letter, which, incidentally, reminds me that Thelonious, back when he was still called Montgomery, had another friend, Swiss or Austrian, whose parents sent him to boarding school, and without warning I am suddenly in an Oldsmobile with Thelonious, 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, and 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 gums 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.
Climbing through the window of a house like that must be what it feels like for my father to open an old book for the first time.
Chico Buarque was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1944. He is a legendary singer and songwriter, as well as the author of novels, plays, and screenplays. His books include Spilt Milk and Budapest.
Alison Entrekin is an Australian literary translator working from Portuguese. Among her numerous translations are Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart and Chico Buarque’s Budapest.