My German Brother

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 14 Jun 2019

Member Reviews

Through NetGalley, I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.  

The story is written in first person and is based on a true story.  The book is summed near the end of the book with “I’m Brazilian, I swear, I learned this fluent German of mine from my father, who lived here before the war and was pals with Thomas Mann.  He even had a son in Berlin whom I’ve spent years looking for…”  

It starts when the protagonist, Ciccio (Francisco de Hollander), came across an envelope addressed to Sergio de Hollander (Rio de Janeiro) from Anne Ernst (Berlin) within one of his Father’s books.   The narrator’s father, Sergio de Hollander, lived in Berlin between 1929 and 1930.  The narrator’s father is quite a book collector – “the largest private library in Sao Paulo”.  One aspect about this book I enjoyed is the frequent references to books.  Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of the Ciccio reading and “borrowing” books.  The story circles around his father’s secret romance in Berlin resulting in a half-brother and the mystery of where his German half-brother is located, what he looks like, and what he’s doing.  “…I have dreamed about him, with a different face each time.”  

There is much speculation by the narrator on Anne’s perspective and life.  “…when she discovered that Sergio had married someone else, an Italian at that, she’d have erased him from her life.”  “I prefer to believe that on the eve of their wedding Anne recognized the mistake she was about to make by marrying Heinz Borgart, especially the risk to which she would be exposing her son.  And to safeguard Sergio Ernst’s name, she’d have broken off the relationship…”  

Friends and relationships of Ciccio are often touched upon.  Throughout the book, the potential impact of this illicit relationship to Ciccio mother is considered.  “I believe that Mother, who’d insisted on a church wedding, would have backed out if she’d known that, in addition to being an atheist, he’d fathered a son in Germany.  But once married, as soon as she began to put the house in order, she would have stumbled upon traces of Anne everywhere.”  Also, Ciccio’s friends, including Thelonious and Udo received the half-brother news with surprise.  “Udo is incredulous:  Is this a joke?”  “My German brother belonged to the Hitler Youth, he was taken prisoner at the end of the war at the age of 15 or 16….  I still have his mother’s letters and a photograph of him performing the Nazi salute, with a swastika armband and everything…  I think I’m mixing up details from several period novels I’ve been reading.”  Thelonious doesn’t believe he has a German brother and Ciccio doesn’t understand since they have been best friends for years.  This book rambles with speculations on the half-brother and impact on Ciccio’s family and friends.  “I haven’t seen Thelonious in years… when things got all weird between us because of my German brother.”  Anne’s son, Christian, becomes an integral part of the story.  “…I should have insisted on shaking Christian’s hand; after all we have, or had, a half-brother in common.”  

Many ”mini stories” are woven within the book such as Eleonora Fortunato (Thelonious mother) wants Ciccio to talk to Udo because “Udo will talk to his father if he’s told that his best friend was dragged out of the house by plain-clothes police officers.”  And, “it was hardly appropriate to go questioning Mother about a long-lost brother in Germany, when she was suffering more and more for lack of news of her own son.”  (That is, Ciccio’s “full”brother, Mimmoas.)  “… she let slip that she’d be satisfied if I devoted myself half as much to Mimmoas I did to the other one.”  

The story climaxes at the end when the half-brother is located and adopted and named Horst.  Until the climax, for me, the book drags and goes down many different avenues.  I enjoyed the frequent references to literature and Ciccio as an avid reader; but, all in all, I couldn’t wait for the story to reach the climax or end.
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It was only on completion that I realized this iwork is at least semi-autobiographical. What a rich story it is, nevertheless, packed with detail and imaginative flights of fancy. The Sebaldian flavor was an additional strength, for this reader. I’ve admired previous work by this writer and continue to be impressed.
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This book was well written and very fun to read. The characters were great and I enjoyed the world building. The author does a great job at introducing the characters and moving the plot along. There were a few things that I didn't like, but it wasn't enough to really sway me one way or the other. It's definitely a story that I can get lost in and both feel for the characters. It is definitely a go-to novel that I highly recommend to anyone who loves a great read. Definitely a highly recommended read that I think everyone will enjoy.
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This book doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, but the road of obsession to find his illegitimate older brother, Ciccio tries to find a deeper connection of belonging, because his father and mother didn’t really give him that. 

To be honest I struggled a bit reading this to the end. It didn’t hold my full attention.
I received this ebook from the publisher and NetGalley for an honest review.
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book reviews, opinions and fun by Norm Sigurdson


Book Review – MY GERMAN BROTHER by CHICO BUARQUE – A Ribald and Wise Coming of Age Tale and a Family Mystery

Before I began My German Brother, Chico Buarque’s fifth novel, I didn’t know a lot about the author. I was vaguely aware that he was a beloved Brazilian singer/songwriter and novelist who often writes on themes of love and politics, and who is now a handsome elder statesman in his seventies. In short, a sort of Brazilian Leonard Cohen.

The novel turns out to be another example of “autofiction” (a genre I’m reading a lot of lately, more by accident than design) and a coming of age story. The narrator and the author share the same full name – Francisco Buarque de Hollanda – but the narrator’s diminutive is slightly different, “Ciccio” instead of “Chico.”

They share other biographical facts as well, as I later learned, including a father who was a famous Brazilian historian and “man of letters” who fathered an illegitimate son in Germany when he was a newspaper correspondent in Berlin in 1930.

But, the novel is fiction and Ciccio Buarque isn’t entirely Chico Buarque. The book was a huge bestseller in Brazil when it was first published in 2014 and much of its popularity must have come from Brazillian readers already being familiar with parts of Chico Buarque’s life story and that of his father. The novel has just been published in English, in a colloquial and bawdy translation by Alison Entrekin. It is a great romp, and I don’t think that being unaware of how much Ciccio’s story departs from Chico’s own is that much of a hindrance to enjoying the book’s sense of adventure and personal curiosity.

The novel opens with 16-year-old Ciccio living in his father Sérgio’s book-stuffed house. Sérgio has over twenty thousand books. “It was the largest private library in São Paulo after that of a rival bibliophile who, according to Father, hadn’t read a third of what he owned.” Ciccio is trying to become a bibliophile like his father, but Sergio pays him no attention, doting only on Mimmo, the oldest son who only reads comics and looks at the pictures in Playboymagazine.

Ciccio seems to hope that his love of literature will eventually endear him to his father but is still intimidated by his indifference. “One day I might reveal to Father that I sort of managed to read half of War and Peace in French, and that now, with the help of an English dictionary , I was labouring through The Golden Bough,” he says.

Stuck between the pages of The Golden Bough Ciccio finds an old letter sent from Berlin to his father in 1931, written “in German and teeming with capital letters.” Ciccio can’t quite translate the letter but thinks he grasps its main subject.

“I know that as a single man my father lived in Berlin between 1929 and 1930, and it isn’t hard to imagine him having an affair with a local Fräulein” he thinks. “In fact, I seem to remember talk of something more serious. I think a while back someone said something about a child he’d fathered in Germany. It wasn’t an argument between parents, which a child never forgets; rather, it was like a whisper behind a wall, a quick exchange of words that, by rights, I couldn’t have heard, or couldn’t have heard right. And I forgot about it…”

Bourque’s choice of Frazer’s The Golden Bough as the vessel for this revelation is perfect, as that Victorian history of magic and religion teems with fertility rites and sacrificially murdered kings.

Ciccio finally finds someone to translate the letter and becomes obsessed with the knowledge that he has an illegitimate older brother living an unknown life on the other side of the world.

He begins to fantasize about his brother, whom he learns was named Sérgio after his father, and begins to imagine his life. Did he become a Hitler Youth or was there some hint of Jewish blood in the family? Did he and his mother move to Brazil and try and get in touch with his father or where they forever embittered toward him?

Ciccio continues to brood about his brother as he passes through adolescent rebellion, stealing cars with his pal Thelonious, and sexual adventures with his brother Mimmo’s cast-off girlfriends. The novel unfolds in dreamlike sequences that keep the reader wondering what is real and what is the product of Ciccio’s overstimulated imagination.

After the protests of 1968 and the beginning of the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1969 both Ciccio’s friend Thelonious and his brother Mimmo are among the many young men who were “disappeared” — arrested and murdered without a trace by the regime. Ciccio becomes even more obsessed by his unknown German brother and even begins to conflate him with the missing Brazilian brother.

The novel ends with a coda where Ciccio, now a retired teacher in his seventies finally goes to Germany and learns the fate of his unknown brother, which is further expanded on in a short author’s note.

Chico Buarque’s brother was given up for adoption and raised as Horst Günther. He found out about his actual parentage at the age of 22 and changed his name to Sérgio Günther. He was a well known singer and television host in East Germany, providing pro-Communist comedic propaganda. He was also a womanizer, like the fictitious Mimmo, having married three times and is rumoured to have fathered an illegitimate child in Yugoslavia. He died in 1981, from lung cancer at the age of fifty.

My German Brother is a clever and a lovingly imaginative fever dream of a novel in which Buarque looks at questions of identity, destiny and our relationships to authority, whether it is the Nazi or Communist regimes in Germany, the military dictatorship in Brazil or even one’s own icily distant and dismissive father.

My German Brother by Chico Buarque (translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin) Farrar, Straus and Giroux 208pp.
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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.
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Spanning multiple decades, My German Brother is thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction which follows protagonist Ciccio de Hollander’s mission to track down a long-lost brother Sergio, the result of an affair between his Brazilian father and a German fraulein in the 1930s. The story is woven in with the displacement of WWII, through leftist disappearances during Brazil’s military dictatorship, and into the modern age of social media. Over time, the distinction between Chico Buarque’s alter-ego and himself dissipates until they become practically indistinguishable by the end of the text. The novel is set largely inside Ciccio’s family home, kept structurally and metaphorically intact by his father’s robust private library which functions as a source of identity for Ciccio and his father.

The family secrets housed in the bookshelves are carefully attended to and arranged by Ciccio’s mother, and what results is an isolated atmosphere which drives Ciccio to seek out a sense of family due to the estrangement and lack of acceptance he feels at home. Ciccio evolves into an ancestry-obsessed old man, who seems to find his sense of self in sorting through family history and placing people in their proper time and place. His pursuit is paradoxical: as he uncovers more about his lost brother’s history and his father’s past, he loses more and more of the people around him. What he may have felt of romantic love becomes debased to pornography. He ostensibly knows more details about his family; he is severed from human connection.

An easy parallel can be drawn to Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (Los Detectivos Salvajes): both books are steeped in reverence of literary giants, have characters who (attempt to) use knowledge of literature as a cultural currency, and flow somewhat haphazardly through time in plots driven by the search of individuals who are more real in the imaginations of their pursuers than in reality. An excerpt from Blake Bronson-Bartlett and Robert Fernandez’s translation of “Sea Breeze (Brise Marine)” by Stéphane Mallarmé, in essence a summary of The Savage Detectives: “Sad flesh. And I’ve read all the books… Fuck this. Steamship tipping your mast, Lift anchor for nature’s exotics!” The Savage Detectives resolves with a sense of “Fuck it, just live your life, none of it matters,” and questions the pedantry of the literary crowd. In comparison, My German Brother falls flat thematically. It does not ask the reader to question their relationship to pride and academic escapism, does not implore the embrace of human experience. Ciccio is eventually able to find what came of his brother, but this revelation is little more than an entry on He does not mourn what he has lost over the years.

I personally can’t decide if I think Chico Buarque laments the loss of human connection in his protagonist alter-ego or if he is relieved to see a conclusion to a lifetime preoccupation. My German Brother delivers a tragic account of a man who outsources his sense of self and uses literature as a social tool rather than as a form of human discovery. Yet if Buarque was aware of this estrangement, he does not directly condemn his protagonist in the text, rarely succumbing to self-criticism or self-reflection. The novel is matter-of-fact in its account of historical events, not batting an eye at the disappearances of the protagonist’s best friend and brother at the hands of the military dictatorship. From reflection on the text, whether or not it is Buarque’s intention, arises a question of what is lost in emotional dissociation. Stripped of human passions which would typically result from war, loss, and love, the self is decontextualized and the forces of history lose their significance.
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'It wasn’t an arugument between parents, which a child never forgets; rather, it was like a whisper behind a wall, a quick exhange of words that, by rights, I couldn’t have heard, or couldn’t have heard right.'

When Ciccio filched a book, The Golden Bough, from his father’s precious, forbidden library he found a letter inside. He can’t read the German words, only understand the beginning and the end. It is written to his father, from a German woman named Anne. He must return the book,  before his mother catches him, the person who tends the library like a garden. The letter will slip from his mind but only for a short time. Then he is off to his friend Thelonious’s house, where they will meet, roam the streets of San Paola, steal a car and slip into the houses of wealthy people. No one loves books as much as his father, whose collection in the end, was over 20,000. Distanced from his father, he spends most of us time getting up to criminal activity, chasing women, hanging with troublesom friends because he gets the same thrill from his antics as his father must get when he opens a book.While coming of age in 1960’s Brazil, his imagined or real half-brother is always haunting the edges of his mind. He spends most of his life trying to understand his father, and missing so much.

Did his father have a child when he worked in Germany, before the Nazi’s took power? Who was his father before he was Ciccio’s dad? Who is Anne? It is in his imagination he attempts to understand what happened during the love affair, where a son (his nameless half-brother) was created? Did his father abandon the woman and child, did she simply give up on him when he married someone else (his mother) and deny him his child?  What of that brother, is he like their father, consumed by books, literature? Ciccio mixes up fact with fiction, even telling his friends he has a German brother, but embellishing the details with fanciful stories. His friend Udo, translates the mysterious communication. Just how close to the truth is he?

His father is an intellectual, Ciccio flirts with it, bragging about the writers his father has met, the signed books. He tries to dig into great literary works, he finds himself during political upheavals amongst students who take part in anti-dictatorship protests (though never one to carry a banner himself, he ‘acquires a taste for it.’) He attempts to nudge his father or mother to reveal tidbits about this German brother, but they never fall for it, and he can’t come right out and ask. Surely his mother must know something, as nothing gets past her, she manages his father’s life, he’d be lost without her. Does she know about the love child?  How could she not, she knows his father better than anyone. He fears his father a little, an aloof man who takes little notice of him, ‘shipwrecked’ in his books, rather than tending to the bonds of his family. His brother Mimmo lives for comic books and soon does voice-overs. His friend gets busted for crimes.Ciccio comes of age, gets better looking, fancies women, but never stops longing for his German brother.

His life becomes a puzzle, he is just as consumed with this phantom brother as his father is by his literature. The novel is fiction flavored with the autobiography of its author (be sure to read the Author’s Note). The ending itself is tender, ‘ And perhaps my eyes will mist over as they fix on the black and white image…’.  Toward his mother’s end, she let’s slip her own comment that confirms she knew everything. It was an engaging novel, about the curious sins of the father and while focused on the mystery of Sergio (his half-brother), Mimmo( the only brother he shared his life with) slips through Ciccio’s fingers. Years pass and with age some questions are answered while others remain.

Publication Date: June 12, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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I really enjoyed this book - it reminded me of the novels of Isobel Allende  and Gabriel Garcia Marquez where reality is questionable but the reader goes along for the ride. And what a ride it was full of larger than life characters, heartbreak, familial love and rivalry, governments good and bad and ultimately a search for the missing piece of the authors life - his half brother.
The translator also deserves praise for making it easy to ride and not an obviously translated book
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