Lygia Fagundes Telles’s “The Girl in the Photograph”

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

Image of Lygia Fagundes Telles’s “The Girl in the Photograph”

Despite its title, Lygia Fagundes Telles’s The Girl in The Photograph is really about three young women. They are Lia, Ana Clara, and Lorena—college girls who live in a Catholic boarding house somewhere in Brazil. The trio is bound by an intense friendship. Although Lia, Ana Clara, and Lorena can’t help thinking uncharitable things about one another from time to time, when they’re together, their connection is electric. They borrow each other’s handkerchiefs, cars, and money. They share jokes, verbal tics (“money,” is always “yenom”—Lorena thinks saying it backwards brings luck), clothes, and intimacies. They even tuck in each other’s shirttails. Theirs is a world of drugs, secrets, run-ins with the law and trysts with older men, but there’s a bright innocence about them too. The book takes its title from a snapshot of three girls, described fleetingly:

“Ana Clara, don’t squint!” said Sister Clotilde, about to snap the photo. “Quick Lia, tuck in your blouse! And don’t make faces, Lorena, you’re making faces!” The pyramid.

The backdrop to this triangular friendship is the historic political upheaval set in motion by Brazil’s 1964 coup. First published in 1973 at the height of the country’s military dictatorship, the book uses the girls’ contrasting personal dramas and diaphanous inner monologues to tease out a pointed critique of the country’s political repression. The daughter of a reformed Nazi father and a Brazilian mother, Lia is the stubborn, politically minded one of the trio. It’s a desire for liberty and justice that motivates her, rather than the lure of wealth or beauty driving her friends. And though she’s not without refined inclinations (and vanity), she has little time for frivolous pursuits. There are political assignations to keep secret identities to wear and discard, reports of torture to follow up on. She moves across the page in a rush. Her boyfriend Miguel has been locked up and she doesn’t know what it will take to secure his release. She writes a novel but then tears it up.

In sharp contrast with Lia is gorgeous, vulnerable Ana Clara. The perfect face and slender, flawless limbs that have propelled her out of the favelas and onto magazine covers are a blessing and a curse. Her modeling career leaves her exposed and unfulfilled; she’s tortured by unhappy memories of her childhood and the sense that she will never truly leave her past behind. Women mock her poor background; men take advantage of her unsteadiness. Telles presents Ana Clara’s monologues through a haze of alcohol, or drugs, or both (“my head rotten sober” as she describes it at one point). All she wants is to escape herself—to forget the painful recollections of childhood abuse and squalor:

Next year I’ll start over, it will all be OK and I’ll be able to live as if I didn’t have that background behind me. But sometimes I hear so plainly the beatings he gave her, putting the ring on his little finger to work. 

There’s little solace to be found in “analysis” (“I keep talking about the things that hurt me most, rubbing salt in the wounds, remembering what I did and didn’t do. And paying in gold for the self-torture”), or in the arms of her lover, Max, who is just as broke and drug-addled as she is. Ana Clara’s best chance for reinvention (and redemption), she’s sure, is to marry her rich fiancé, a wealthy man she neither likes, respects nor loves, and refers to simply as “the scaly one”:

Next year. I’ll open my registration and have a brilliant academic career I’m very smart. A fashionable house on the beach I’ll entertain, invite everyone, they can live there I’m not selfish I’ll share it with you all. I want jewels, everything glittering.

It’s clear she’s not convinced of this herself, though. Her relationship with “the scaly one” proceeds in a fog of substance abuse and excuses. Ana Clara’s spiraling deterioration plays out at a remove from Lorena and Lia’s; her room is just down the hall, but her burdens and drugs push her far out of reach. She is a symbol of the country’s deepest failings. Her friends love her helplessly; what more can they do?

The real apex of the pyramid is Lorena. There’s much Ana Clara and Lia find exasperating about her—her fragility (“I am the delicate type. Sensitive. Cousin to that little lizard spread out on the windowpane”) and aversion to physicality (faced with a runny nose, she thinks, “Too many holes, too many secretions”), her compulsive cleanliness, precious wardrobe, privileged lineage, dainty perfume, mints, and of course, her virginity. Alone in her room, Lorena writes long letters to M. N., the married doctor she’s convinced she’s in love with: “I wrote that my whole life converged in him and that from now on I would only radiate outward from him.” She knows her friends judge her convoluted, tortured approach to the opposite sex (“I’m the complicated type, with me things just can’t be resolved so fast”), an approach that seems emblematic of her aversion to life itself. But is M. N.’s unattainability so different from Max’s or Miguel’s? The physical and emotional distance of these men only further cements the girls’ friendship.

If Ana Clara and Lia’s lives are a swirl of plots and subplots, by contrast, pristine, daydreaming Lorena is a rock of reliability. She is the one who has the most time—and capacity—for friendship. With Lorena, everything is slow, steady, clean, and lofty. A day, or an hour with Lorena passes slowly, as she lingers inside, basking in the incandescence of daily pleasures:

I pause to admire the graceful pattern of the tablecloth with its big leaves in a hot green tone, through which, half-hidden, peers the Asiatic eye of an occasional orange. The pleasure I take in this simple ritual of preparing tea is almost as intense as that I take in hearing music. Or reading poetry. Or taking a bath. Or or or.

Beneath Lorena’s dreamy self-absorption, however, lies a depth of kindness. The other girls can’t help but forgive her airs because she’s such a generous friend. They know, also, that Lorena has demons of her own, too. Lorena’s widowed mother has somewhat scandalously taken up with a much younger man. And then, there’s the matter of her brothers. Lorena tells her friends she was just a little girl when she saw her brother Remo accidentally shoot and kill his twin Romulo in a game. The death plays over and over again in her mind. It hardly matters that Lorena’s mother casts doubt on her daughter’s version of events, (“She never knew her brother, she’s the youngest… She was still a little girl when she started to invent this”). The gash left by Lorena’s childhood is too large to ignore, and yet she gives and gives.

Margaret Neves’s translation from the Portuguese sparkles with the energy, colloquialisms and inflections of youth (as when, for example, Lorena describes death as having “pickled eyes”). Since its publication nearly forty years ago, the book has gone through eleven editions in Brazil, and been translated into dozens of languages. Yet nearly four decades after its original release, the concerns of The Girl in the Photograph are no less pressing. What power—or responsibility—does one have to one’s peers, or to one’s countrymen? What does it mean for a woman to be truly liberated? To what extent can one transcend ones past? As the currents of life pull the girls’ dramas forward to the novel’s cataclysmic end, these questions are hardly resolved. They remain a provocation, an invitation to look beyond the surface.