My German Brother by Chico Buarque review: a fascinating search for family secrets

Brazilian popstar and author Chico untangles a family secret in this slippery novel
Brazilian popstar and author Chico untangles a family secret in this slippery novel Credit: Sipa/Rex

Chico Buarque, or simply “Chico”, is a bona fide icon in Brazil. In the Seventies, he smuggled slyly political lyrics into his samba-inflected pop, which got him into trouble with the military dictatorship’s censors and made him a hero of the democratic movement. He has since become internationally acclaimed for his plays, poems and particularly for his novels, Budapest (2003) and Spilt Milk (2009), which chronicle the Eurocentric Brazilian elite with the same playful, experimental humour displayed in his virtuosic lyrics.

His latest novel, My German Brother, is a fascinating, shape-shifting piece of autofiction. Ciccio, the protagonist and Buarque’s alter-ego, is the pampered son of a journalist and bibliophile, Sergio Buarque de Holanda (who shares a name and occupation with the author’s real father) and his Italian wife, Assunta (who does not).

They live in a house in São Paulo overflowing with Sergio’s rare books, which cover the cracked walls, clutter the rooms “like Aztec pyramids in ruins”, are patrolled by giant cockroaches and hide all manner of things within their pages – from insect wings and banknotes to old family secrets. Inside a 1922 edition of The Golden Bough, Ciccio finds a letter from Berlin that reveals the existence of his illegitimate half-brother, also named Sergio, conceived while their father was working in Germany.

There follows a search for answers that stretches across several decades, from Ciccio’s adolescence at the beginning of the military dictatorship in the Sixties, when he carouses with friends, steals cars and chases girls, to the present day, when he is an older, single man, still living in his parents’ crumbling, book-strewn house. He is haunted by several disappearances – which were rife during the dictatorship – but most of all by the loss of the brother he never met.

Long, breathless paragraphs weave freely between years and places, reality and fantasies. This style worked brilliantly in Spilt Milk, which captures the morphine-clouded ramblings of an old man on his deathbed. In My German Brother, the wildness of Buarque’s digressions sometimes flattens the emotional resonance of the story, creating a rather arch sense of distance. At times I got the impression that Buarque, like his father, is fond of hiding things in the pages of books.

Chico Buarque in Rome, 1969 Credit: Getty

The text is punctuated by photographs of letters that document the attempts of Sergio senior to bring his German son to Brazil in the Thirties – a fruitless mission, because he could not prove his Aryan heritage to the Nazi administration. Sergio, like most Brazilians, has mysterious origins, as Ciccio himself remarks: “I could be the great-grandson of slaves, or a rabbi from Amsterdam.” There’s more than a whiff of Sebald to this potent, meandering mixture of text and image, fact and fiction, so it is satisfying to find Buarque doffing his cap to the great German in the final pages, when Ciccio visits his brother’s homeland and reads one of Sebald’s books – presumably Austerlitz, his 2001 masterpiece, in which the protagonist declares: “I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all.”

My German Brother is not a memoir – that much is evident. It swerves from reality in multiple ways: Ciccio never leaves his parents’ home, never marries or has children, and never becomes, like Chico, a star. But by the close, when Ciccio discovers in Germany what has became of his sibling, the fiction seems to fall away, leaving behind a sense of wonder at Buarque’s very real discovery. What is left unsaid is whether Sergio junior knew the identity of his remarkable Brazilian brother, who spent so many years trying to find him.

Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water is out in paperback (Penguin, £8.99)

My German Brother by Chico Buarque is published by Pan Macmillan at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit