Fernanda Montenegro at the Brazilian Academy of Letters

Gerd Winner, Untitled, 1978.
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By DANIEL BRAZIL*

The controversial nomination of the actress to the ABL

The controversial nomination of actress Fernanda Montenegro to the Brazilian Academy of Letters has caused reactions, for and against, very typical of a polarized Brazil. Personally I admire the great, stupendous actress, I have some disagreements with citizen Fernanda, and I have a lot of contempt for the Academy. What is a gym anyway? And what does it mean to be “of Letters?”

Founded in 1897, modeled on the 40-member French Academy, it had a glorious beginning. Machado de Assis as president, Joaquim Nabuco as general secretary. Nabuco defended that our Academy be represented by notable figures in all fields, as is the French Academy, but the current (little clique?) of scribblers was stronger. This did not prevent Nabuco from nominating a hero(?) of the Paraguayan War, Artur Jaceguai, to join the club.

Of course, the artistic level of the ABL fluctuated over the decades, according to the literary style in vogue, the cliques, the politicking and the satisquery. Those who are masters in these last fields have a better chance than those who are only dedicated to producing quality art.

Let's make a short list of relevant figures in Brazilian literature, which supposedly any high school student should know: Monteiro Lobato, Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Cecília Meireles, Mário Quintana, Lima Barreto, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Graciliano Ramos, Érico Veríssimo, Cora Coralina, Adélia Prado, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Antonio Cândido, Clarice Lispector, Raduan Nassar and Dalton Trevisan, without going on too long.

Second list: Fernando Magalhães, Rodrigo Octavio, Augusto de Lima, Aloísio de Castro, Cláudio de Souza, Adelmar Tavares, Levi Carneiro, Elmano Cardim, Laudelino Freire, Teixeira de Melo, Gustavo Barroso, Ramiz Galvão, Antônio Austregésilo, João Neves da Fontoura and Aníbal Freire, among others.

Obviously you know, read or heard about, good or bad, the former. None were part of the ABL, although some even tried. From the second list, all were not only elected, but presidents of the glorious Brazilian Academy of Letters. The same entity that brings together such bizarre names as Lyra Tavares (Army Minister during the military dictatorship), Getúlio Vargas, Ivo Pitanguy (plastic surgeon), José Sarney, Merval Pereira and, now, Fernanda Montenegro. It should be remembered that the ABL, founded in 1897, took 80 years to admit female presence, but there is a curious caveat here: while the French Academy only received a woman in 1980 (Marguerite Yourcenar), in these parts Rachel de Queiroz broke down the barrier in 1977.

Of course, it is very easy to highlight writers of recognized talent who were part of the association's staff. Vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas. But what would Joaquim Nabuco say about such outlandish choices, which in practice diminish the role of the writer in times of such fierce combat between civilization and barbarism, between culture and ignorance?

By historical irony, Nabuco's nominee, Artur Jaceguai, gave a pathetic speech, breaking all ABL rules. He did not honor his predecessor, Teixeira de Melo, saying he had not known “neither the man nor his work.” He proposed reducing the number of seats to thirty, which provoked corporate protests. Finally, it disappeared into the mass grave of the quasi-anonymous.

Happy who enters the Academy already famous, like Fernanda Montenegro, at 92 years old. She doesn't even have to go to five o'clock tea to put up with talk about current politics. Can you imagine her exchanging ideas about when the next funeral will be and who will be chosen? She could have spared herself this embarrassment and given up her nomination in the name of a true contemporary writer. Conceição Evaristo, for example, or Maria Valéria Rezende. Surely she would be much more applauded.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

 

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