Midway through My German Brother, a novel by the Brazilian author Chico Buarque, the narrator finds himself strolling along his country’s most famous beach. But instead of a carnival of sun-warmed, loose-limbed pluralism he finds an open grave: ‘the sky clouds over, the colours fade, the sea grows calm and the sand disappears under a crowd of bodies pressed up against one another. The bodies are naked and I feel my way with my feet, afraid I might wake them, but they are cold and stiff.’
The subject of Buarque’s dense, phantasmagoric fictions – of which this is the fifth – is what lies under the everyday terrain of nation, family and consciousness. Here the story is set in motion when the narrator, Ciccio, discovers that his ageing father, a renowned man of letters, secretly had a child while living in Germany in the 1930s. Ciccio’s quest to find out what became of his half-brother, which begins in São Paulo in the 1950s and takes him, finally, to modern-day Berlin, becomes a surreal and unsettling journey through German and Brazilian history. Those bodies on the beach are the spectral victims not only of the Nazis but also of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which, between 1964 and 1985, ‘disappeared’ thousands of real and imagined enemies.
Remarkably, Buarque only began writing novels after a late career change: he had previously been best known in his home country as a singer-songwriter who had produced countless bossa nova hits, protest anthems and romantic ballads. His self-reinvention as an author of sly, pitch-black stories is a metamorphosis worthy of Kafka, whose influence riddles the text like the cockroaches that crawl out of Ciccio’s father’s bookcases to die, belly up, on the floor. As Ciccio wanders through its streets, São Paulo becomes an indecipherable landscape, a city where ‘no sooner has a map been printed than it becomes obsolete’.
But My German Brother is much more than a bloodless exercise in literary ingenuity: notes of authentic grief sound through its pages. ‘Many times I have dreamed about him,’ says the narrator of his lost brother, ‘with a different face each time, faces that morph in the aquarium of dreams, figures that vanish in the morning light.’ Ciccio is obsessed with the disappeared because he belongs to a family in which he feels himself to be a missing person; his search for his brother is, in part, an attempt to construct a story intricate and original enough to win his father’s attention. And folded into the book’s fictional narrative is the real-life story of Buarque’s decades-long attempt to discover what became of his own German half-brother as Europe was engulfed by war. At the centre of this diabolically inventive novel there’s the unmistakable beating of a broken human heart.