It is by coincidence that the Brazilian musician and author learns that his dad fathered a boy when he lived in Germany. Their house has always been full of books, his father a passionate historian and writer, horded them and, at times, forgot letters and other things in them. It is such a letter that Chico finds which indicates that his father had an affair with a certain Anne Ernst when he lived in Berlin as a journalist around 1930. Later, when the Nazi regime took over, he tried to bring his son to Brazil. Since father and son hardly talk to each other, it is not an option for Chico to ask him about the unknown half-brother, thus, Chico starts his research on his own.
Even though the book is classified as fiction, it is based on Chico Buarque’s life and the facts he reports about his father and German brother are actually true. Sérgio Buarque de Holanda spent some time in Berlin where Sergio Günther was born who later became a well-known artist in the German Democratic Republic. Unfortunately, the brothers never had the chance to meet.
I really appreciate Buarque’s tone of narration, especially at the beginning, the light-heartedness with which the young men move around town is well transferred into the language the author uses. Interesting to observe are the family structures. Even though the father’s main occupation is closely linked to language in all shapes and forms, the family members hardly find a way to communicate with each other and the most important things remain unsaid. A third aspect which struck me was the part in the novel which gives insight in the time of the military regime. Hardly do I know anything about the country’s history, therefore those glimpses are most fascinating.
Sometimes life itself invents the best stories. Even though some of it is fictional, I found Chico Buarque’s story about his mysterious brother most intriguing and a perfect example of how complicated families and our lives can be.
When the news of his beloved sister’s death reaches Ren, he hurries to the small town of Akakawa where she had been worked as a teacher for the last couple of years. The police do not have many cues about the young woman’s crucial death, she fell victim to a merciless murderer and was heavily mutilated. Ren starts to ask questions himself, first the landlord where his sister had stayed and with whom she seemed to have had quite a delicate agreement. But also at her work place, there are interesting people who might know more than they would admit at first. In his dreams, Ren is haunted by a young girl with pigtails who obviously wants to tell him something, but he needs time to understand the girl’s message.
Clarissa Goenawan’s novel is set in 1990s in rural Japan and thus the atmosphere is far from the Tokyo rush that you might have in mind when thinking about young people on the Asian island. The plot moves at a moderate pace; modern media simply does not exist so people need to talk to each other to get information or to – very conventionally – send letters. Even though the motive that drives the action is an unsolved murder case, the novel is far from being a real crime novel. It is much more about the brother’s loss, a rather dysfunctional family (or rather: families since none of the families presented can be considered functional in any way) and in a way also about love or different kinds of love. It is a quite melancholy book with some rather dark and even mystical aspects.
I felt sorry for the young protagonist most of the time. He is quite lonely and now with his beloved sister gone, he got nobody to rely on anymore. His childhood memories were quite depressing and it is a wonder that from what he and his sister experienced they didn’t develop any serious mental illness. There is something intriguing about the other characters, too, albeit I assume that this is also stemming from the fact that they are portrayed in a fairly typical Japanese way, eccentric to some extent, which is rather unknown or unusual for Europeans. What I found quite interesting is the fact that the writer herself isn’t Japanese, but for me, her novel is thoroughly Japanese concerning the atmosphere and the characters.