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Lygia Fagundes Telles: As Meninas (The Girl in the Photograph)

I am going to start with one of my favourite bugbears – the translation of the title. The Portuguese title simply means The Girls. Apart from the patronising tone (they are not girls but young women), it is fairly accurate but probably quite boring as a title. However, inexplicably, the English uses the singular girl. The book opens with the eponymous photograph and it is clearly being taken of all three of the heroines of this novel. So why the singular? Quem sabe? as the Brazilians would say. Having said that, this book was published in the brilliant and sadly lamented Avon Bard series of Latin American literature in translation, which introduced English-speaking readers to many fine books, including this one.

João Goulart was a left-wing president of Brazil, deposed by a military coup (with, of course, the help of the United States) in 1964. This led to a twenty-year military dictatorship, with human rights suppressed and numerous people arrested, tortured and murdered for their political views. This is the background to this book, set in the late sixties and published in 1973.

We follow the stories of three young women who are (nominally) studying at university. They live in what the translation calls a boarding house and what we might, I suppose, call a hostel, though it seems fairly luxurious. It is run by Catholic nuns but they seem fairly liberal, at least by my stereotypical view of what Brazilian Catholic nuns should be and compared to the view of Catholic nuns in other Brazilian novels I have read. It is stories of the three women – all three are very different – that make up the bulk of the novel. The story is told in the first person by the different women in turn, so we very much see their innermost feelings and concerns.

The first of the three is Lorena, aka Lena, full name Lorena Vaz Leme. Lorena comes from a wealthy family. Her father is dead but her mother is still wealthy and has a much younger lover known simply as Mieux, because he uses the French expression faute de mieux all the time. Lorena had two brothers. Romulo is dead and the grim nature of his death is described, though there are two radically different versions of his story and his death. Remo is a travelling diplomat who sends his sister handbells from various places he visits. Because of Lorena’s wealth, the others frequently borrow money from her as well as borrowing her mother’s car.

Lorena is a virgin. In some of the other novels by Brazilian women I have read this would be no surprise. Indeed, it would be more of a surprise were she not a virgin. The other two are definitely not virgins. There is a good reason for her virginity. She is in love with – obsessed with might be the more accurate term – N.M., who is Dr. Marcus Nemesius, a doctor much older than her, married with children. She fantasises about him throughout the book, writes letters in verse to him and makes a feeble attempt at stalking him.

Ana Clara Conceição is the daughter of Judith but has never known her father. Her sister, Ducha, spent time in a asylum. She was brought up in great poverty but, as she is very beautiful, she has become a model but has squandered her earnings irresponsibly, including on drugs. She is engaged to a rich man, purely because he is rich, but she does not like him or find him even vaguely attractive but she likes the idea of his wealth. However, she is having an affair with Max, who is totally unsuitable. Firstly he is a drug dealer and her drug dealer. Secondly, he does not treat her well. Ana Clara spends much of the book being miserable and totally unsure of herself, who she wants to be and where she wants to go. Getting pregnant by Max does not help the matter either for her or for her relationship with her fiancé. It is clear that she needs psychiatric help but is reluctant to go for help.

Lia de Melo Schultz, aka Lia and Lião, is very different. She is the revolutionary and is therefore facing arrest on a daily basis. She belongs to a small group of revolutionaries, though she is at times critical of them for spending more time talking than acting. Fagundes Telles gives us many details of the repression they face, including graphic descriptions of some of the tortures those arrested have undergone. Lia’s boyfriend, Miguel, is one of the ones arrested. In 1969 Charles Burke Elbrick, US ambassador to Brazil, was kidnapped by revolutionaries. They threatened to kill him unless fifteen prisoners were released. This was done. In this book, Miguel is one of the fifteen. Her codename is Rosa, after Rosa Luxembourg.

Lia’s father was a Dutch Nazi who abandoned Nazism and fled to Brazil. Lia essentially abandons her studies and gives most of her money to the group, so often has to borrow money from Lorena. However, while she was studying, she studied the prostitutes of the city. She knows everything, even the number of prostitutes who derive pleasure from their work and those who don’t, she’s researched that as well. She wandered about the red-light zone for an entire month, bag and briefcase in hand, asking the most original questions. She and the group frequently borrow Lorena’s mother’s car. Lia also wanted to be a novelist, wrote a novel and then tore it up – The sea of useless books is already overflowing. After all, fiction, who cares about it?

It is Lia’s mother who sums them all up:

That you’re a militant leftist and that you’ve failed the year because you missed so many classes? That you have a boyfriend in prison, are working on a novel and planning a trip to I don’t know where? What do I know about Lorena? That she likes Latin, listens to music all day long and is forever waiting for a phone call from a man who never calls her. Ana Clara, there you are, Ana Clara. Since she seeks me out and confides in me, I should feel secure in the impression that I know all about her.

As in other books by Brazilian women, the men do not come out particularly well. We never meet the famous N.M. but the men we do meet are not impressive. Despite this fact, all three women seem to be dependent on men, Lorena on N.M., Ana Clara on Max and Lia on Miguel.

Moreover none of the women is particularly happy. The various nuns we meet are concerned about their charges, knowing that they are heading down the slippery slope. Lorena’s mother is unhappy, particularly when the man she really loves, her therapist, dies. As for our three heroines, Ana Clara gets more and more despondent over the course of the book, Lorena still has not got the man she so desperately loves and Lia is worried about Miguel and worried that the revolution is not happening. It is interesting to follow the story of three Brazilian women who are, at least, moving towards liberation, even though the military takeover is right-wing and therefore, presumably, not too much in favour of such liberation but, above all, this book is about the relationship and interaction of three women who are unsure of themselves, unsure of where they are going and who are all headed in different directions, as we really see by the end of the book.

Publishing history

First published in 1973 by Livraria José Olympio Editôra
First English translation in 1982 by Avon Books
Translated by Margaret A Neves