Songwriter Chico Buarque spoke to the Voice after an appearance at the recent PEN festival. In his beautiful 2004 novel Budapest (Grove), a Brazilian ghostwriter recreates himself in the titular city, through the alien buzz of the Hungarian language.
Foreign affairs: [A Hungarian interviewer] said, “If you don’t know Budapest, if you don’t know Hungarian, why didn’t you invent another country?” And I said, “I dreamt of you, I dreamt of Budapest. This is an idyllic Budapest, an oneiric Budapest—I don’t mean to pretend that I know the country. I could have consulted a map to check the street names; instead I named them after Hungarian football players.” When I read books about Brazil by foreign writers, there’s a false intimacy that disturbs me. And that’s exactly what I didn’t want to do with Budapest. It was useless to go there and stay for one month researching things, or six months, two years. So I stayed in my house in Rio with a map of Budapest and some dictionaries.
Turkish doorbell: I was in Paris, I’d just started writing the book. I went to the big bookstore (CNAC) . . . I couldn’t find a Hungarian dictionary, but I saw a Turkish one and by chance I opened it and saw on the last page, “zil: doorbell.” I thought, “Damn, that’s good.” Zil sounds exactly like what it means. So I put it in the book. When these happy accidents occur, I say, “The gods are with me.”
Why Hungarian: For a Brazilian, it is maybe the strangest language one can try to learn.
On exile: I think when you speak a different language or live in a new country and really try to live in that culture, as my character tried to do —he changes his language, he’s got a new personality, he tries to be another—I don’t know that someone can really do that. When I started the book I thought about this kind of exile. But I perfectly understand his desire to be anonymous, the attraction to that. And the vanity of being an anonymous writer, I understand that very well, I’ve felt it.
[During the darkest period of Brazil’s military dictatorship, Buarque explored anonymity as one tactic for getting his songs, vibrant in their opposition, past the censors.]
On strategy: I don’t think the experience of writing under censorship is in itself better than without censorship, I would never say that, I think that’s very dangerous. But for the development of the language, it surely is energizing. Under censorship one has to work with words to find other meanings and work between the lines to say things you can’t express otherwise. That was really a very good exercise for me. . . also, finding tricks to mislead the censors. One thing I tried was inventing a heteronym to take credit for songs to get them past the censors.
Meeting the censors: Once I met one who was a former player for the national team of Brazil—the team that lost the National Cup to Uruguay. I said “How dare you censor my work when you lost to Uruguay?” Mostly, they were people doing their job.
Two careers: I wouldn’t be the writer I am without all the music I wrote. I think there is something of a musician in my writing. And I don’t mean the lyrics of the songs, I think of music itself. Unconsciously, I’m not satisfied until each phrase has the right rhythm. It’s something of a musical logic.
Learning and forgetting: I’m trying to write songs now. It’s difficult to resume with music after a book—or to write a book after writing music. It’s difficult and that’s why it’s good. I feel fresh. If I write songs now, it’s not a continuation of what I wrote six years ago. Something new is happening. And I hope I’ll have enough songs this year to make a record. I can’t do both things at once. I really have to forget one or the other. Because if I start to write songs with literature in mind, I don’t think the songs would be good—I think they can sound pretentious or in some way fake. I have to forget literature. So each time I return, I have to relearn it, and I think that’s really good. The only problem is that each time I take more time to write, more time to pass from one thing to another, and have less time to live! So I have to write these songs, record this record, perform, and then forget how to write music, come back to literature. I will begin the next book in 10 years. Then it will take me five years to write it. Fortunately, I enjoy the process.