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Emilio Fraia: Sevastopol (Sevastopol)
This novel was inspired by Tolstoy’s The Sevastopol Sketches, though there does not seem to be a great deal of similarity between the two. Tolstoy’s work was, as the title tells us, based on his visit to Sevastopol during the Crimean War and describes, in three sketches what he saw. This book consists of three stories, which have the same titles as The Sevastopol Sketches – December, May and August – but there the similarity ends. These stories are fictions. Each is set partially in Brazil and partially in another country,- Nepal, Peru and Russia respectively. The last one is called Sevastopol and is set partially in Sevastopol during the Crimean War but mainly in modern-day Brazil.
So what links these stories, apart from all being set partially in Brazil and sharing their titles with the Tolstoy work? On the surface, not a great deal is the answer. However, there is one common theme. All deal with a relationship (only one is romantic/sexual) which starts and ends during the course of the story and in which some problematic event occurs which hastens the end of the relationship.
Out first story is called December and is narrated by Lena. She comes from a well-off Brazilian family and is a keen mountain climber, so much so that she plans to become the first Brazilian woman to climb the Seven Summits. i.e. the highest mountain in each continent. She has trained hard, got her sponsorship and got a team together.
We know from the beginning of the story that she has a serious accident and we later learn the full details. She had had an affair with Gino, an Italian who had moved with his family to Brazil when a teenager. Gino was also a climber but, above all, he he made videos. He makes a video of her voice talking over shots of a mountain landscape which, she says, gives the whole video a dreamlike feeling.
She had bumped into him on her first trip to Everest and things had developed from there. It worked out well. They got on well together and the sex was good. The idea is that he would accompany her on her Seven Summits trip and film her. He is there when she has her accident but, afterwards, he seems to disappear though he does get in touch much later.
We also follow her well after the accident. She reinvents herself, travelling the world, giving talks, but she is not happy. Indeed, despite getting her life back together to some degree, she seems disconnected from the world around her. We see this when she wanders around and visits an unattended art gallery, where she sees a video, seemingly about her, yet she feels it is not about her, even though we know the incidents she mentions did happen to her.
The second one is set in a remote hotel, near the Brazilian-Peruvian border. The hotel has not done well so the owner, Nilo, has seemingly given it up but is still there with his sole employee, Walter. A nearby farmer is eager to buy the hotel to expand his farm but Nilo is hesitant. One evening a couple arrive in a car. He is Adan and she is Veronica. As the hotel is remote and there is nowhere else to go, Nilo lets them stay. We jump three weeks ahead and Adan is still there, while Veronica left after the couple had a furious row. She still phones every day.
Nilo and Adan become friends chatting. Then one day Nilo goes into a nearby town and returns having bought not only a car but a little house. We learn his back story, as he switches between Peru and Brazil, with things not working out well either as regards job or marriage. He had a child by his first wife, Gracia, called Oscar but he does not seem to have been a good husband or father.
However, early on in the story, he has disappeared. His car is there and all his things are still in the room but he is not to be found. Has he disappeared? Nilo is worried and he drains the swimming pool but cannot drain the river.
The third story is about an unnamed narrator in São Paulo. He works in a museum but hates his job. He has also recently broken up with his boyfriend so he is quite miserable. He is writing a strange story about a Russian couple, Sasha and Nadia. The story will change substantially throughout the course of the book. He then meets Klaus, a much older man.
Klaus was a theatre director but though fairly well-known he, had done experimental plays so was not well-off. He is now planning another play and our narrator quits his museum job to assist him, including writing some of the script.
The play is about the fictitious Russian painter, Bogdan Trunov. Trunov lives near Sevastopol during the Crimean War and, therefore is very much exposed to war, but does not want to paint action pictures. Instead he focussed on the soldiers’ everyday lives, when they weren’t at the front: the little breaks, the downtime when nothing was happening, soldiers with grubby faces waiting to hear the whereabouts of their artillery batteries or playing cards at a staging post. He arranges his subjects in a strange way so that their eyes never seemed to meet.
In many respects, he is like Klaus who also does not like action He liked what he called the lingering moments: the rain, dunking cookies in milk — that moustache dripping with milk.
One day Trunov receives a visit from a soldier who wants Trunov to paint him – in the midst of battle. Trunov reluctantly agrees to set up a fake battle scene and the play is about his struggles with this. Meanwhile the narrator and Klaus are out getting drunk and Sasha and Nadia have moved from Russia to Brazil.
The narrator has his theory: People always tell the same stories, even when they try to tell new stories. Stories are laid out in front of us, like objects, and over time we realize that they’re all made of the same material, a solid mass of stone and metal.
Are these stories made of the same material, a solid mass of stone and metal? In some way they are. The main characters are all somewhat lost, somewhat detached from the world in which they live. They struggle to find meaning – climbing Everest, running a hotel, writing a story, staging a play – but cannot. They all end up badly, even Nadia and Sasha.
Though separate stories, as we can see, there is a certain connection between them. All their main characters fail at relationships and fail at finding meaning in their life, even though they try. At the end of their stories they are lost. Perhaps they will begin again and look elsewhere for a purpose to their life but the general outlook is not positive for any of them. Fraia gets under their skin and shows us that, ultimately, we just have to go on.
First published in 2019 by Alfaguara
First English translation in 2021 by New Directions
Translated by Zoë Perry