Origins of the Portuguese PEN Club

The official history of the Portuguese PEN Club’s foundation is a brief one, but the unofficial version is considerably longer. The first attempts to found a PEN Centre in Portugal go back to before World War II. They were periodically repeated, without great success, until the Portuguese political regime changed completely with the Revolution of 1974.

In 1938, a Portuguese journalist called Luís Forjaz Trigueiros sent a questionnaire to the French novelist Jules Romain, then President of the French PEN. Trigueiros was particularly interested in the author’s answer to the question: What is the intellectual’s role in the contemporary world?

The following extract from Romain’s response shows his humanist position as the author of Les Hommes de Bonne Volonté, and represents the position of some important writers of the time who belonged to International PEN and followed the dictates of its Charter:

In no period has the intellectual had the right to disinterest himself from the problems that concern his contemporaries and in this hour, in which men are struggling with tremendous difficulties, it is his duty to place his influence at the service of reason — because many of these difficulties have an ideological origin.

In bygone days, men of action acted according to their birth and used it as a support, either as a supernatural designation or by force. They would say to the men of thought: this has nothing to do with you… today men of action who can be considered intellectuals are rare, either because they always put themselves in the position of disciples of a philosophy they do not know or from which they have fixed on certain formulas they do not understand or because they have not understood the essence of its ideas or theories. This gives intellectuals the right to intervene.

The letter below, from Fidelino de Figueiredo, the independent International PEN delegate in Portugal, was written in 1935 to Ferreira de Castro, then director of the weekly paper, O Diabo. It shows the contact some Portuguese writers had, at least individually, with International PEN and to what extent they were aware of the responsibility involved in accepting its directives:

Lisbon, 30th October 1935

Ferreira de Castro

O Diabo Editorial Office


My Dear Friend,

Mr. Hermon Ould has written to me. He is the General Secretary of the international writers’ association, “THE PEN” based in London, of which I had the honour of being a delegate in Portugal. He has asked me to spread information in Portugal about a motion presented and approved by the Pen Club of Paris, in the hope of obtaining more signatories adhering to its doctrine. I enclose the text itself and would be most grateful if you could do something along these lines in the columns of O Diabo. Needless to say, I am one of the warmest supporters of the doctrine. The first French signatories were Paul Valéry, Jules Romain and André Gide. Mr Ould informs me there are also eminent names among the English.

Ferreira de Castro, responding to his friend’s request, published the PEN Club text on the front page of O Diabo, on 3rd November 1935. Its contents were as follows:

The PEN Club and war

The PEN Club, the great writers’ association, whose current president is the famous novelist H. G. Wells, has just sent its worldwide members the following message:

“In the presence of the deplorable current events, the state of war created and the general risk of war it stimulates, the members of the Federation of PEN Clubs, an international association of writers from 40 countries, believe it their duty to solemnly record article 1 paragraph 3 of their statutes: “The members of the PEN Clubs shall use in any circumstance any of the influences they may exercise, personally and through their writings, in favour of mutual understanding and respect between peoples.”

Hundreds of French and English writers have immediately adhered to this doctrine among whom are Paul Valéry, Jules Romain and André Gide.”

This text, illustrative of the engaged position expected from all PEN members, concerned Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, on 3rd October 1935 but also foresaw the outbreak of World War II.

There are no other known traces of contact between the Portuguese and International PEN, which must have gone on at an individual, private level although there was no possibility of official backing. The fact that the text was published does, nonetheless, suggest some degree of tolerance.

A more fruitful attempt took place around 1945, after the end of World War II. It was initially associated with the Democratic Unity Movement, which was joined by a group of Portuguese writers, journalists and artists. As Mário Neves states in an important article, Pen Club Português: uma história com 40 anos, published in the weekly paper JL on 11th May 1987, these intellectuals formed a Committee whose aim was to stimulate the active spread of culture, to “defend culture and the democratic spirit”.

During this period, Mário Neves informs us, a message of solidarity was also sent to the International Committee of French Writers, praising their efforts as “defenders of fundamental democratic freedoms” who had “known how to maintain a position at the side of all those French who fought the enemy”, showing the desirable “common ground between spirit and action.”

This message, signed by the majority of the Committee members, was published in the weekly paper, Les Lettres Françaises in the October of the same year.

At the same time, however, the members of this Commission, having learned that the writer Fidelino de Figueiredo had contacts with the International PEN Club, asked for his help in setting up a Portuguese Centre, to be part of the International PEN Federation. Fidelino de Figueiredo agreed and the Portuguese proposal was accepted by the International PEN board. Work started on the Centre, and in 1947, after the Statutes were drawn up, the regulations of the Portuguese PEN club were published, and the association became affiliated to the International PEN Club.

The Statutes of the Portuguese PEN Club determined that it should be made up of “founder members and ordinary members”. As a result, 40 writers were chosen to fill the first category, including Ferreira de Castro and Fidelino de Figueiredo.

The first Executive Committee was then formed, its President being Fidelino de Figueiredo. This initial phase of the Portuguese PEN’s existence was far from easy. The political regime in Portugal at the time was highly repressive of freedom of expression, particularly of the freedom implicit in the International PEN Charter, which declares that the association “stands for the principle of unhampered transmission of thought within each nation and between all nations, and members pledge themselves to oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible.”

The progressive stance in defence of freedom of expression that characterises, among other aspects, the activity of any PEN Centre and whose principles had to be followed by the Portuguese Centre could only create greater difficulties in establishing the Centre in Portugal at the time.

Nevertheless, the members of the Portuguese PEN did not give up, increasing their efforts to make international contact with a view to creating a place for the Centre in the International Federation. By mid 1947, the Portuguese PEN Club had already been mentioned in publications by foreign PEN Centres, its existence thus being recognised internationally, which must have irritated the repressive, insular national system which openly stood for the principle of “splendid isolation.”

Such ideological incompatibility, in addition to differences within the Centre itself, led to Fidelino de Figueiredo resigning from the Presidency in July 1947. This meant the election of a new Executive Committee later in the same year. However, the political climate which, despite its restrictions, made possible the creation of a PEN Centre in Portugal in the 1940s, grew worse and, as Mário Neves comments, little by little, its affiliates, “without the basic conditions to carry out free and fruitful activity, resigned themselves to seeing an organization, which had dared to dream, die.” Gradually, the Portuguese PEN Club, without the real ability to act and intervene in contemporary society, began a “long and painful hibernation” from which it would only awake after the 25th April Revolution.

In 1963, 16 years later, when the country was enmeshed in the Colonial War and the regime at risk, Dr. Paul Tabori, representative of the International Writer’s Fund of the International PEN Club, came to Lisbon with the aim of contacting Portuguese writers about another attempt to start a Portuguese PEN Centre. This contact was set up by the Portuguese Writers’ Society, at the time when novelist Ferreira de Castro was its president.

An ad hoc Committee made up of various writers (whose names, unfortunately, were not recorded) was then set up to deal with the matter. We know, nonetheless, through surviving correspondence, that Ana Hatherly was responsible for maintaining contact with the London-based International PEN.

According to this correspondence, after failed attempts with the Portuguese authorities, despite the support of the British Council in Lisbon, the ad hoc Committee for the establishment of the PEN Club in Portugal was dissolved in February 1964. Once again, hopes were dashed of setting up a Portuguese PEN Centre.

With the 25th April Revolution, however, there was no longer an impediment to opening a Centre and so, on 15th November 1974, a Committee collected the signatures of 24 writers (International PEN requires the signatures of at least 20 writers for the foundation of a Centre), who came to be the signatories of the Constitutional Charter of the Portuguese PEN Centre. That list of founder members was sent to International PEN, together with a request to join, which was approved at the 39th International PEN Congress, in Israel 1974.

These first founder members were (in order of signature): José Gomes Ferreira, Maria Velho da Costa, Maria Amélia Neto, Manuel Ferreira, Casimiro de Brito, Pedro Tamen, Vergílio Ferreira, Ana Hatherly, Salette Tavares, José Cardoso Pires, José Palla e Carmo, Eugénio de Andrade, Fernanda Botelho, Fernando Namora, Jacinto do Prado Coelho, E. M. de Melo e Castro, Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, Urbano Tavares Rodrigues, Maria Judite de Carvalho, Bernardo Santareno, Paulo Quintela, Oscar Lopes, Miguel Torga and Manuel Alegre.

This proposal was a significant step forward in creating a PEN Centre in Portugal, but a real Centre, legally recognised by the Portuguese authorities, was only established in April 1978 when, after a meeting held at the Portuguese Writers’ Association, presided over by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and attended by a quorum of founder members, Almeida Faria and Ana Hatherly were provisionally elected onto the Board of the Portuguese PEN Club, as President and Secretary, respectively. The Assembly’s decision was then communicated to International PEN.

Writer and lawyer, Luís Francisco Rebello drew up the Statutes, based on those of the International PEN Club. These were then discussed and approved at a meeting on 3rd October 1978 and, on 28th December, the Constitution of the Club was formally signed. 24th January 1979 saw PEN elect its first administrative board.

The difficulties, however, of establishing PEN in Portugal before 25th April can easily be explained by a brief study of the aims of International PEN. These were intended to be carried out in every country adhering to its Charter and Statutes. After even a cursory reading of the International PEN Charter (expressly referred to in Art. 1, paragraph 2 of the Portuguese PEN Club Statutes), it is clear why setting up a PEN Centre in Portugal was such a lengthy process.

International PEN, which currently has Centres throughout the world, was founded in England in 1921 by the writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott. It was based on an idea put forward by the English novelist, John Galsworthy, who was also its first President. Other members who also became Presidents include H. G. Wells, Alberto Morávia, Arthur Miller, Pierre Emmanuel, Heinrich Boll, V. S. Prichett, Mário Vargas Llosa, Per Wasterberg, Francis King and Gyorgy Konrád.

Currently, International PEN is the largest and most important world organization of writers committed to the defence not only of their freedom of expression, but also of human rights and values, with standing committees dealing with specific issues: Writers in Prison, Writers for Peace, Linguistic Rights, etc. Committee members meet periodically at national and world PEN Conferences and Congresses, and representatives of the Portuguese PEN club are always active participants.

One of the areas in which the Portuguese PEN Club had a major role was in the Committee given the task of producing a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, founded in 1988 by the Committee of Translations and Linguistic Rights, with Ana Hatherly as President and Isidor Cônsul, of Catalan PEN, as Secretary. After lengthy debate and successive refinement, the Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights was approved by the Assembly of Participants at the World Conference, which took place on 6th June 1996 in the Auditorium of Barcelona University. The Portuguese text was published in 1999 by our Centre, sponsored by the UNESCO National Commission.

The Portuguese PEN Club also played an important role in the campaign to free Xanana Gusmão, now an honorary member of the Centre. Portuguese PEN was active for over ten years at international assemblies in making its significant contribution towards the independence of East Timor.

Ana Hatherly, 2006

(translated by Mick Greer)