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‘Deep down everything’s connected’ [book review]

A review of Sevastopol by Emilio Fraia, translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry

The characters in Emilia Fraia’s Sevastopol are all a little bit lost. A young female mountaineer, obsessed with climbing Mount Everest, conflates her damaging relationship with the mountain and her equally unsuccessful relationships with men, particularly the older and unreliable Gino. An elderly man, eking out his last years at an abandoned country hotel, receives an unexpected visit from Adán, a young Peruvian-Brazilian man who seems at home in neither country and vanishes into the forest shortly afterwards. And Nadia, a young student who has dreams of being a writer, becomes entangled with Klaus, a failing playwright working on a production about a Russian artist who witnesses but never actually paints the Crimean War. Distinct they may be, yet certain threads run through these three stories, cleverly connecting their characters not so much by events as by themes and emotions. In an assured translation by Zoë Perry, Sevastopol introduces English-speaking readers to a young Brazilian author who is more than deserving of international attention.

Cover image Sevastopol

Inspired by Tolstoy’s The Sevastopol Sketches and named after the months given in their titles – December, May and August – Fraia’s stories in fact have very little to do with Crimea’s largest and most famous city. Sevastopol puts in an appearance only in the last story, and then solely in distanced form: an image on a postcard, streets on a map, tumbledown buildings imagined by the main characters. All the same, there is a certain melancholy attached to the book that seems reminiscent of people’s desire to conjure far-off places, that particular form of longing for a city never visited but where things could be better. Whether through art, travel, physical exertion or literal disappearance, each of the characters we encounter is yearning to escape.

It is always the sign of a good story when the reader would gladly read on, and all three stories in Sevastopol are filled with enough atmosphere and compelling characterisation to create exactly this effect. Fraia is an excellent observer of people and draws them for us using two simultaneous techniques: details about his characters are given away by their thoughts and actions, but also by the stories they tell about themselves. ‘December’ and ‘August’ feature first-person narrators, while in ‘May’ the young man, Adán, tells his life story to his ageing host, Nilo, in dialogue that is entirely without quotation marks, allowing it to bleed into the main text. This is just one instance of a story within a story, one of the main themes that runs through the book and makes the reader question how much we can really know of other people – or, indeed, ourselves.

Though on the surface Sevastopol may seem a quiet book, full of sparing prose and stripped-back imagery, Fraia’s evident interest in the nature of storytelling adds considerable nuance and depth. This is perhaps most clear to see in the final story, ‘August’, in which the two main characters spend most of their time writing or otherwise telling stories. Not only is a play the main subject of the story, but Nadia, our narrator, continually drafts and redrafts a story about a man and a woman (also called Nadia) whose relationship is clearly complex yet undefined. The details of her life that she narrates to others – her parents and playwright Klaus, mostly – are also a form of storytelling, helping her to make sense of her life and the society she finds herself in. The last line of ‘August’ is particularly telling: in Nadia’s story, her two main characters find themselves on an ‘avenue, which grew wider and wider and impossible to cross’. Nadia’s own struggle to reconcile the different parts of her life – studies, writing, work and relationships, all nebulous – seems much like someone hovering on the edge of a stream of traffic, needing but not quite daring to cross.

More daring are the other main characters, Adán in ‘May’ and the young mountaineer in ‘December’, though their actions don’t necessarily result in a fate that is any clearer or more reassuring. As he tells Nilo about the grief and loss he has experienced in his life, Adán’s story becomes about ‘how we keep falling, from one ordeal to another’. There is something hopelessly inevitable about the events he relates, just as there is about the fate we sense will eventually befall the old man, alone but for a faithful employee on a crumbling farm that is ‘drowning in the landscape’. Interestingly, while Fraia’s main characters are all young and have great potential – creative talent, determination, strength, brains, ambition – they seem somehow more washed-up than their older counterparts. Another line from Adán’s story rings terribly true in this context: ‘with great hope also comes a great lack of hope’. Here, youth and potential seem to wander hand in hand with despair.

Despite being able to tease these darker themes out of the strands of the book, Sevastopol is an absorbing and enjoyable collection to read, transporting us effortlessly to the backstreets of São Paulo or the slopes of Everest. Though some characters, such as Klaus, are not meant to be very likeable, the narrators are sympathetically portrayed and entirely real in their small quirks or at times baffling emotions. Fraia writes with a sense of detachment – brief sentences, light on adjectives – and the stories are presented in fragments, short sections that at first glance don’t always follow on from one another. Here, Perry’s English translation is razor-sharp: her language is light, yet weighty with that overarching sense of melancholy; punctuation plays an important role in giving the stories their own particular rhythm.

Many-layered and exquisitely crafted, concerned with art – each of the stories is prefaced by a distorted image pertaining to its geographical theme – and the stories we tell ourselves and others, Sevastopol is about using words to make sense of life, and how even the smallest stories are interconnected. Linked yet individual, with intriguing characters who undergo transformations before our eyes, the disarming simplicity with which these stories are written belies their haunting complexity. A book to think about long after you have finished, Sevastopol clearly shows Fraia to be a masterful contemporary storyteller.

Sevastopol by Emilio Fraia, translated by Zoë Perry, is published by Lolli Editions on 1 June 2021. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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