For the non-native lover of Brazilian music, few noises are as startling as the sound of the cuíca, part of the mixed percussion section that gives life to the samba and, by extension, to the season of Carnival. To call the cu´ca a “friction drum,” as music dictionaries tend to do, is technically accurate—with one hand the cuíca player grips a wet cloth and rubs a bamboo stick up and down inside the drumhead while with the other he presses on the skin of the drum. But the cu´ca’s sound is not percussive in the usual sense. Better to think of its music as the sound of strange animals talking: a conversation between, say, a wildebeest, baboon, and mouse, where the groan of the wildebeest and the grunt of the baboon are continually offset by the squeaking of the mouse.
It’s the sort of sound that you had best be prepared for. I remember listening for the first time to Chico Buarque’s “Desalento” (“Heartbreak”) (1971), a delicate ballad with unexpected harmonic changes and one of Buarque’s trademark sinuous melodies, and being spooked to the core by a cuíca that appeared, without the least warning, at the start of its second verse. I had been lulled into a pleasant soundscape—Buarque’s everyman baritone, accompanied by a tasteful flute, light percussion, and a nylon-string guitar—when a menagerie of curious creatures crashed the scene, gleefully shaking my frame of reference, as Carnival spirits are wont to do.
I’m drawn to ponder the singular music of the cuíca, the drum that is no mere drum, as I reflect on the expansive career of Chico Buarque, an intellectual who is no mere intellectual. Arguably Brazil’s most cherished living artist—in 1999 he was voted the country’s “musician of the century” by a Brazilian newsweekly—Buarque remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, perhaps because our culture has too little imagination to accommodate a composer-lyricist who is also a playwright and novelist of note, no frame of reference for an artist who has learned equally from Carnival and Kafka, bossa nova and Brecht. In Brazil, his first name is synonymous with works that offer an improbable amalgam of wit and integrity—with a body of music that ranges between self-questioning sambas, lushly melodic love songs, and topical songs circling around the fate of the working poor; with plays that rewrite the Western repertory (Medea, The Threepenny Opera) in a Brazilian key; and with novels that, drawing upon Kafka’s parables of entrapment, marry existential seriousness with a playful affection for exposing the devices of narrative. Faced with an oeuvre that encompasses over 300 songs, four plays, four novels, and a few films to boot, the aspiring Chico-ologist in the United States would do well, ironically, to begin with his fiction, which not only is easier to find in translation but also offers revealing clues about the unforgiving yet dream-like world his art evokes.
The good news about Buarque’s fiction, for starters, is that it is not your typical rock-star fiction. These are not tales of life “on the road,” not romans à clef of decadent celebrity, punctuated by athletic if joyless sex and driven by the writer’s sense of self-importance. From the start of his career, in fact, Buarque has skewered the cult of the rock god: his first play, Roda Viva (“Spinning Wheel”) (1968), ended with its protagonist, a pop star, torn limb from limb and devoured by his fans in an orgy of violence. Roda Viva’s actors even descended into the audience to offer up morsels of the pop star’s liver (actually, pieces of raw chicken), the intent being to leverage the audience’s imagination to turn its stomach, to make it revolted with its own fascinations.
This was, in no small way, a personal move on Buarque’s part. With his aquamarine eyes, brilliant smile, and readiness to lead protests against the military dictatorship, he became, by one estimate, “the Errol Flynn of the left,” and, by another, “the man every woman wanted to marry and every man wanted to emulate.” Yet Buarque has consistently tried to avoid the fate of the political or matinee idol, keeping his distance from the usual publicity channels and feeding some figurative raw chicken to his audience every now and then. The scandals he has incited have been aesthetic, not personal, as when Roda Viva was banned by Brazil’s military government, or when he adopted a songwriting alias to dodge the eye of the censor in the 1970s.
His novels, meanwhile, explore predicaments of extreme anonymity and isolation. Their protagonists are middle-class nobodies who have a measure of security in their lives but drift nonetheless from misadventure to misadventure, never clear on the difference between a simple mishap and an utter calamity. The nobody in question might be a perennially unemployed sponger from a well-connected family (as in Turbulence), a male model who has lost his looks and vegetates in his home (as in Benjamin), or, paradigmatically, a ghostwriter who makes his living off his ability to throw other people’s voices (as in Budapest), but they all seem, with their frayed attachments to friends and family, headed for some sort of nasty reckoning. Buarque’s loners follow in the tradition of existential fiction that extends from Kafka to post–World War II exponents such as Albert Camus, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Kobo Abe and Buarque’s fellow Brazilian Clarice Lispector—a tradition that, with its high seriousness, has admittedly been out of vogue in contemporary U.S. literary fiction. Paul Auster, whose novels sell considerably better in France than in the United States, may be one of Buarque’s closest relatives among American authors, and not coincidentally he interviewed Buarque at a PEN-sponsored event around Budapest.
In Turbulence and Benjamin, both written in the mid-1980s, as Brazil began its uneasy transition out of two decades of military dictatorship, Buarque set himself an unusual task: how to compose an absorbing story around characters who have lost their sense of narrative, who don’t parse their lives in terms of cause and effect, or even in terms of past, present, and future. Their aimlessness seems a metaphor for the chaotic disorganization of Brazil itself—dead bodies pile up in these fictions as murders are committed under color of authority—but Buarque is interested less in delivering a panoramic image of Brazil and more in conveying what chaos feels like from the inside. There is a strong sense of social critique in these two novels, but it is filtered through extremely unreliable narrators who suggest the inability of the Brazilian middle class to sense responsibility (much less take it) for the world they have helped create.
Tellingly, both novels are written largely in the present tense, which has the effect of saddling the reader with the same sense of uncertainty that troubles their protagonists. Turbulence, for instance, begins with its slacker narrator meandering over the course of a day from his sister’s modernist luxury home, where he begs for a handout, to his parents’ old rustic estate, where he keeps company with a decrepit caretaker and the caretaker’s cunning grandchildren, who fleece him of the money he has just scrounged up. Another sort of narrator might rue his luck, or panic, or lash out. This one falls asleep, then wakes up with “My bedroom window looks out on the verandah, and I feel I’ve been asleep at a race-track.” Faced with such an unexamined life, the reader can’t help but do the examining for him; we color his blankness with our judgments, consider his impulses until they crystallize into motives, sift his observations so that a pattern of his world emerges.
We also struggle to get our bearings on the narrator’s sense of individual and cultural exhaustion, which might seem more Slavic or Teutonic than Brazilian. Here he is, musing on the fate of dreams and dreamers:
After a certain age I think our stock of dreams dries up and it’s all repeats. But as nothing’s totally detestable, old people’s power of recall fades as well, so they’re not sure if they dreamed a dream or not. They recognize the high points and say “That’s right,” but aren’t sure what’s coming next. And if what comes next is a precipice, a fire, an air disaster, the death of all their relatives . . . the old people say “I knew that” or “Didn’t I tell you?” And back to another dream with no great expectations, but no greater boredom, preferring to dream all the dreams again than to answer the door bell.
The prose is typical of Turbulence: cynical, casual, and, ultimately, self-indicting. (Translator Peter Bush deserves credit for capturing its jaded edge.) The narrator believes that he is ruminating here on the state of his elderly mother, but as readers we know that he’s talking about himself as well. Turbulence opens with the narrator afraid to answer his own door, imagining a Kafkaesque functionary who would haul him out of bed for an unspeakable, unknowable reason; and his present-tense narration and hard-boiled prose suggest that he suffers from the same limited power of recall and the same limited store of dreams that he attributes here to others.
What saves Turbulence from the pull of its own ennui is Buarque’s absurdist imagination, which defies the narrator’s verdict of cultural exhaustion: a quite Brazilian god of coincidence puts the narrator through his paces, mocking and schooling him at once. He steals jewels from his sister, for example, but when he tries to fence them, he receives in return a huge suitcase full of pungent marijuana, which he must lug around town in search of another buyer. At one point, he eyes a woman with crutches at a bank and decides to pose as her valet—who would stop a man carrying a suitcase for someone disabled?—but he quickly discovers that she whimsically hops around the city, jumping in front of traffic and assuming that every car will stop for her, while he huffs after her with the suitcase propped on his back. At such moments, the narrator’s demeanor swings from hard-boiled to soft-boiled, and the novel’s drama of existential angst, its story of a man burdened paradoxically by a weightless life, reveals itself happily as a comedy of errors.
* * *
While Turbulence is structured as a picaresque, its nameless narrator tripping down the road to ruin, Benjamin is a trickier contraption: a novel written with a roving camera eye, which follows a character until he or she bumps into the world of another character, at which point the narrative shifts, tag team–style, from the bumper to the bumpee. The novel’s central story is the halting courtship of Ariela MasÃ(c), a young woman who shows apartments for a rental agency, by Benjamin Zambraia, a middle-aged model so paralyzed by self-consciousness that he can’t play a sleeping passenger in an airline commercial without his eyelids fluttering uncontrollably under the camera’s pressure. Obstructing that courtship are Ariela’s other suitors: Alyandro Sgaratti, a prostitute’s son who has risen to become a politician known as “the people’s xiphophagus” (a conjoined Siamese twin); Zorza, an inscrutable car salesman; and Jeovan, a now-paralyzed former police officer with a possessive streak.
The novel opens with a literal bang—the report of 12 death-squad rifles aimed at Benjamin’s body—and its overarching conceit is that this instant of death is quasi-magical, giving birth to this omniscient narrator who then roams freely through Benjamin’s past. The device of omniscience seems to have loosened Buarque’s syntax and given momentum to his prose, which the translator, Clifford Landers, renders inventively, as in this description of Benjamin at his moment of deathly revelation:
He would also learn to penetrate into spaces he had never known, into times that were not his own, with the senses of other people. And suddenly he would catch himself walking simultaneously in all directions, and he would take in everything at a single glance, and all that he perceived would never cease, and infinity itself would fit inside a bubble in the interior of a dream of a man like Benjamin Zambraia, who does not remember ever having died in a dream.
The passage has a heady, almost druggy whiff to it, but Buarque doesn’t simply set out to prove the tenets laid out in it. Instead, over the course of Benjamin, he tests these existential verities—that anyone has the power to seize control, at least mentally, of even the most straitened circumstances, and that anyone can define the terms of their life, even in death—through an unlikely hero, the shallow and amnesiac Benjamin, who spends his days sorting through scrapbooks filled with magazine images of women he knew in his days as a model, inventing new pasts and futures for himself. It’s to the novel’s credit that Benjamin, who is forced to reckon with the past his forgetfulness conceals, does not pass these tests with anything approaching flying colors. He is an anti-anti-hero—not an icon of resistance but a mix of perpetrator and victim—and a useful fulcrum for a fictional inquiry into political complicity.
The agent of Benjamin’s reckoning is Ariela, whom he imagines to be the daughter of Castana Beatriz, an old flame who materializes out of his 1963 scrapbook and gradually emerges, through the fog of his memory, as a political radical whom he unwittingly betrayed to the police. Ariela becomes, then, many things to Benjamin: a way to revisit his affair with Castana and relive his youth; a way to imagine himself as a family man rather than a loner; and a way to redeem the mistakes of his past. The one thing she is not to him, one might say, is a flesh-and-blood person. Ironically and, in the end, tragically for him, Ariela returns the favor by refusing to probe his personality, viewing him in terms of her obsessive desire to outrun her own past. Their pas de deux is more like a disguised form of shadowboxing.
Explained this way, Benjamin might seem as intricately bloodless as a good chess problem, and much of the novel’s pleasure is simply cerebral—the pleasure of discerning a pattern in the play of extreme coincidence. Its deeper satisfactions, however, come not from its answers, but its questions about complicity and self-deception: how does an authoritarian regime insinuate itself into the lives of its citizens, even those who have emptied themselves into a fantasy world of celebrities and fashion shoots? Why do we prefer self-deception to self-awareness, even though it means never seeing our friends and loved ones, much less the political arrangements of our world, as they truly are? And how do we pay a price for self-deception even if, given the nature of our condition, we never comprehend how deceived we are? Benjamin is often confounding, especially when it plays on the unstable distinction between the history its characters experience and the history they imagine, but that confusion seems part of Buarque’s wager as a novelist—that the above questions have a unique resonance when they’re asked of those whom we don’t naturally sympathize with, when they’re posed in an empty chamber.
Buarque followed Benjamin eight years later with Budapest, which marked a pleasant departure. While Turbulence and Benjamin were thickly conspiratorial, Budapest is written in a mood of wry absurdity, as if Buarque felt compelled to recognize that the weightlessness of his earlier protagonists was not just a cause of concern but also a condition of tender possibility. (It is also replete with wordplay, nicely rendered by Alison Entrekin in her English translation.) Kafka still presides over this Mittel-European tale of a Rio ghostwriter who decides to create a newly obscure life for himself in Budapest—his name is José Costa, a Brazilian version of Josef K.—but here it’s the Kafka who helped inspire the meta-fictional parables of Borges and Calvino, in which a story can take on such a life of its own that its characters jump off the page and into the world.
With his permanently rumpled suit and an attitude to match, José Costa is a study in the frustrations of middle age. His strategy is to keep everyone at a distance, even himself: after spending a day in a Budapest hotel room, studying a map of the city rather than journeying out into it, he reflects that “Strolling around a map like that did not bother me, perhaps because I have always had the vague feeling that I was also the map of a person.” Back in Rio, he has a crumbling marriage to his wife, an anchorwoman whom he thinks of as a “parrot,” and an aloof relationship with his five-year-old son, who is obese and strangely mute.
After Costa arrives at his office to discover that his partner has trained his replacement—a ghostwriter’s ghostwriter who wears Costa’s striped shirt, coughs Costa’s cough, and has the uncanny ability to forecast Costa’s every turn of phrase—the novel enters into a realm that it will occupy for the next 150 pages: the sphere of white-collar black magic. Costa starts suspecting that, in his Rio, he is no more than a marionette jerked by some higher power. And if he is as easily mimicked as his own clients, what can he call his own? Might he find a new self, free from these string-pulling fingers, if he were to reinvent himself in a new language—say, in Hungarian, “the only tongue in the world the devil respects”?
So the narrator moves to Budapest, where he tumbles into an on-again, off-again affair with his language tutor Kriska. As a teenager interested in urban planning, Buarque drew up richly detailed maps of imaginary European-style cities, dense with winding streets and other medieval traces, and Budapest’s Budapest seems to emerge from his long-standing fascination with non-Brazilian forms of city life; Buarque has admitted in an interview that his Budapest is “an idyllic Budapest, an oneiric Budapest” whose streets are named after Hungarian football players. So José Costa, now Zsoze Kósta, travels through a Budapest thin in documentary detail but rich in serendipitous encounters, where someone new to the city is equally likely to meet a revolver-toting Romanian tough, a rollerskating language tutor, and a senior national poet.
Kósta’s Budapest is thin in a documentary sense, arguably, because his dream, of shedding his previous life and starting from scratch, is thin too; the novel seems to sympathize with the yearning behind the dream while suggesting the futility of the dream itself. In one of Kósta’s happiest moments, he effuses about the pleasure of writing in Hungarian, which turns his “prose” into “poetry,” but the metaphor he chooses—“I wrote as if I were walking through my own house, but in water”—suggests that a disaster lurks behind this newfound feeling of authority. Kósta is surely knee-deep in something, even if Buarque is too discreet a novelist to point an accusatory finger.
Near its end, Budapest surprises by turning into a hall of mirrors: there is a ghostwritten novel entitled The Gynographer, about a German who assimilates to Brazil by writing his story on the nubile bodies of young Brazilian women (an encoded version of Kósta’s relationship with Kriska); there is a ghostwritten chapbook of Hungarian poems entitled Secret Tercets, full of such fripperies as the “Symphony of the Nymphomaniacs” and the “Specular Crepuscule” (a succÃ(r)s d’estime so preposterous that it seems to spoof the workings of literary prestige); and then there is a Budapest within Budapest itself, which JosÃ(c) Costa denies having written despite having served as our narrator throughout. As Buarque raises the ante with each turn of the absurdist screw, some readers may wish that the novel were not so cheeky in its plotting, that it didn’t force us to think of its richest characters as pasteboard constructions.
Budapest is a sly novel, however, in that it pairs immodest designs with a more modest morality play. It’s immodest in endowing fiction with the power to create worlds more compelling than reality, and then, more provocatively, flustering the reader by tearing those worlds down. As the conceit of ghostwriting surfaces in unexpected corners of the novel, Budapest seems to suggest that ghostwriting is not an odd form of fiction-writing but perhaps its paradigmatic case: authors here can’t help but submerge themselves into their alter egos, leaving their earlier selves bereft and not a small bit confused before the all-too-convincing world they’ve evoked—one more vivid but not quite theirs. “It was as if [the author] had printed colours on a film I remembered in black-and-white,” José Costa rues after seeing his life put behind hard covers.
Budapest is modest, though, in its delighted tweaking of the vanity that passes for authorial pride. Every author, Buarque suggests, should suffer from a form of impostor syndrome, and he milks some nice comedy out of the conflict between a publicity-mad publishing culture, which packages authors as media-friendly, and the activity of writing, which forces authors to perform disappearing acts. Notably, it is only after José sees himself deflated that his relationship with Kriska becomes recalibrated into something approaching reciprocity. The returns of egotism, it turns out in Budapest, are much more illusory than the rewards of companionship—an old moral, but powerfully reinforced through the novel’s metafictional delivery system.
* * *
Despite the considerable achievement of Buarque’s fiction, his songwriting has had a much wider impact, a function of its greater amplitude and sureness of execution. While his novels speak for a Brazilian middle class that has lost its sense of self-possession and, partly as a consequence, given way to feelings of tentativeness, his songs have far wider resonance and tap confidently into such nationally identified genres as samba, choro, and bossa nova. Turbulence and Benjamin had telling afterlives as experimental films, sketch-like in their plotting; Buarque’s songs, meanwhile, have become the theme songs of Carnival, the calls of solidarity chanted in soccer stadiums, the standards through which millions of Brazilians have expressed their sense of their country’s crisis and their dreams of its potential.
Buarque’s recent album Carioca, his 26th, suggests just how much he has discovered his own idiom, one that uses samba and bossa nova as its foundations while freely adapting a host of other genres from cabaret chanson to rap. (Buarque, unlike his compatriots Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, has never drawn much on rock music, which may be another reason he has yet to ‘cross over’ in the United States.) “Carioca” is the term for a Rio de Janeiro denizen, and Carioca is a loose concept album that sketches Buarque’s evolving relationship to his native city. It’s both a nostalgic evocation of the world that Rio promised to be, as the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city) of legend, and a gimlet-eyed description of today’s Rio, a megalopolis where the fall-off between being rich and being poor is like a parachute-free plunge from the top of Sugar Loaf mountain to the beaches below.
Carioca carries forward two of Buarque’s perennial concerns, the fate of Brazil’s poor and the riddle of music’s power. Its first song, “SubÃºrbio” (Outskirts), is a manifesto for the truly unseen Rio—the heterogeneous section of the city that sprawls far from its beaches along its northern rail tracks, an area that is neither the breezy Rio of bossa nova nor the Scorsese-inflected, adrenaline-rush Rio of City of God. Just as Buarque’s novels find a narrative within someone who has little sense of story, so “Subúrbio” builds a song out of an urban conglomeration that has little mythology to it, just millions of residents struggling to scrape out a living.
The song’s verses, which float over a complex and dissonant series of guitar voicings, detail how this part of the city refuses to square with Brazil’s sense of itself as nature’s paradise:
Lá não tem brisa
Não tem verde-azuis
Não tem frescura nem atrevimento
Lá não figura no mapa
No avesso da montanha,
É cara a tapa
[There's no breeze there
No freshness or forwardness
It's not on the map
On the mountain's back face
It's the labyrinth
The wrong way
The sucker before the punch]
translated by Victoria Langland and the author)
These outskirts are “off the map” in every sense, and close in mood to Turbulence’s stifled city. Here the air is inert, along with the much-vaunted Brazilian libido; every street goes one-way in the wrong direction; and a bruising is always just around the corner.
“Subúrbio” diverges sharply from Turbulence, though, in that it’s catalyzed by an act of music-making, which for Buarque has long carried with it a utopian sense of awakening and fellowship. (“This samba is so immense,” he sang in his early hit “Olé Olá,” “it makes me think that time itself will blink, then stop to lend an ear.”) In the chorus, as the song shifts to a new, brightly major key and a clarinet emerges with a perky melody, Buarque characteristically asks this shadow city to make itself heard in all its musical languages—choro, samba, funk, rock, pagode, reggae, hip-hop—so that it might “outclass the other city which exploits its marvelous reputation.” Here the lyrics describe what the music performs, as the boxed-in rhythm of the verses loosens into the buoyant strains of self-affirmation.
How much power, though, can music lend to the powerless? This is a question that has fascinated Buarque for over 40 years, and on Carioca he is, as usual, of several minds on the matter. “Dura Na Queda” (The Harder She Falls) is a typically enigmatic piece. On first listening, it comes off as a driving, jazzy number with a punchy big-band horn chart and a limber, upbeat chorus, but its jauntiness is actually in the service of a complicated irony: if we pay more careful attention, we’ll observe that it describes a woman who has lost her skirt, her job, and her mind, and who now lives on the street, where she hears the honking of car horns as the sound of orchestras playing her theme song from Carnival. The cheerful chorus (“Life is beautiful—the sun, the yellow road, and the waves, the waves”) is at least in part the sound of her self-delusion and escapism, even if it swings with all the suavity of a Gil Evans arrangement for Miles Davis. Buarque has frequently experimented with a combination of harsh lyrics and uplifting melodies, and the effect is often, as here, as disquieting as it is enchanting.
Buarque’s complex stance toward Brazil’s poor, which oscillates between empathetic identification and an almost arch sense of ironic distance, is nowhere more evident than on “Ode aos Ratos” (Ode to the Rats), for which Buarque’s producer Luiz Cláudio Ramos has summoned a discordant soundscape to match: distorted guitar and programmed percussion set against a string section and more traditional drum bateria. “Rato” is Brazilian slang for “thief,” and the song unblinkingly catalogues the violence committed when “the pit of the stomach chas[es] after its ration.” Buarque’s thief is recognized as the “ransacker of the city,” the “gnawer of all hope,” the “rapist of illusion,” and, lastly, his brother and equal.
Unexpectedly, near its end, the song becomes not only the most menacing but also the most purely playful track on the album, with Buarque reeling off a tongue-twisting rap that plays off the sonic proximity of “rato,” “roer” (to gnaw), and “roto” (ragged or broken):
Rato que rói a roupa
Que rói a rapa do rei do morro
Que rói a roda do carro
Que rói o carro, que ró o ferro
Que rói o barro, que ró o morro
Rato que rÃó o rato
Que ri do roto
Que ró o farrapo do esfarra-rapado
Que mete a ripa, arranca rabo
Rato que ró a rosa
Ró o riso da moça
E ruma rua arriba
Em sua rota de rato
[Rat that gnaws the clothes
That gnaws the hustler’s hoodlums
That gnaws the wheel of the car
That gnaws the car, that gnaws the iron
That gnaws the clay, that gnaws the ’hood
Rat that gnaws the rat
That laughs at the broken
That gnaws the rags of the ragamuffin
That lets you have it, rips off your tail
Rat that gnaws the rose
Eats at the girl's laugh
And heads up to the ’hood
In his ratty rags]
(translated by Victoria Langland and the author)
“Bad rat,” Buarque scolds, mimicking those who look down their nose at society’s “riff-raff.” But his rap pays a perverse tribute to these ever-resourceful demons of social disorder, channeling their unstoppable energy even while underscoring their destructiveness and rat-eat-rat amorality.
Given Carioca’s frequent air of disenchantment, the album ends with a sweet surprise: “Imagina” (Imagine), a lush hymn to possibility that dates from a 1983 collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Earlier, on “Subúrbio,” Buarque had caustically riffed on Jobim’s bossa-nova chestnut “ Águas de Março” (Waters of March), which opens “ É pau, é pedra, é o fim do caminho” (“It’s a stick, it’s a stone, it’s the end of the road”). Buarque had sung “ É pau, é pedra,” but followed it with “ é fim de linha, é lenha, é foga, é foda” (“it’s the end of the line, it’s firewood, it’s fire, it’s fucked”), twisting Jobim’s line so that it evoked not a bittersweet, meditative walk but the dire fate of the city’s scavenging class. On the way from Ipanema to the outskirts, the romantic spirit of bossa nova took a hard, cynical hit.
On “Imagina”, though, Buarque gives Jobim’s sumptuous melody an irony-free royal treatment, complete with sighing violins, gentle flutes, and the fanfare of French horns. It’s as if Buarque recognized that the more intense the disenchantment, the greater the need for re-enchantment; as in Budapest, the last word goes to the imagination itself, which can make the impossible seem an essential part of our reality. The song evokes the metamorphoses initiated, according to Brazilian folklore, by magic weather—by the lunar eclipse, which creates a night so dark that people disappear into themselves; or by the arrival of a rainbow, whose seven colors are thought to draw out the seven lives contained within each individual. The song begins as a pensive waltz, but it ends with a flurry of melody, in an acceleration that expresses the forward momentum of an unleashed imagination. “The girl who crosses back quick under the rainbow turns into a boy,” Buarque sings in a rush, before imploring the listener to imagine that it’s so. Arguably the engine of Buarque’s creativity over the last four decades is captured here — in a dialogue between belief and disbelief, where the artist presses against the limits of credibility and asks, with humility and conviction, for a self-consciously momentary indulgence.
Scott Saul is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, which won the American Book Award. He is at work on a critical biography of Richard Pryor.