[New Directions; 2021]
Tr. from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry
“People always tell the same stories, even when they try to tell new stories.”
Ironically, or not, this memorable line appears in the third and final story of Sevastopol, Emilio Fraia’s collection of short fiction. In an interview about the collection, Fraia, a Brazil native, explained he is “less interested in the reality of objects than in their representation.” And while much of the book’s action takes place in Brazil, Fraia offers a counterintuitive take on authorial authority: “I didn’t want the fact that I’m familiar with a certain world to matter, to change the way I’d write about it.” Both these quotes, not to mention his actual work, speak to a novel approach to acquiring, representing, and thinking about knowledge. I am not sure if there is a general expectation that stories in a collection will be in conversation with one another, but Fraia’s are. And if I may be audacious, I think their connective tissue can be summed up with one word: epistemology. But that word is also a question.
The three stories have minimal but intertwined titles: “December,” “May,” and “August.” The first one is foggily about a trailblazing Brazilian female mountain climber whose fall on the way down Mt. Everest leads to the amputation of her legs and, perhaps more to the point, becomes famous for her TED talk about facing and overcoming setbacks. This narrative denouement, in which the narrator turns her journey into a packageable story to wrap up the actual short story, is ambiguous and ambivalent. Our hiker-narrator evaluates her progress:
What had I done with my story? To be honest, I did what people do all the time. Tell stories, retell them, freeze them in time, try to make sense of them. This is me, I exist, this is my story, this happened to me, I suffered, I fought, I kept going, I made it, the world needs love and justice, inspiration is the path forward, it’s the first step towards making a wish come true. And history is repeated until everything gets erased, and we no longer know what is what.
It is interesting that the hiker-narrator never explicitly says there is anything wrong or even technically false with how she has presented her experience. Rather, it feels as if her narrative addresses some kind of primitive need which, while real enough, does not exactly lead anywhere. This need, Fraia implies, is as vestigial and inert as the hollow ambition that makes Lena want to climb in the first place: “What motivated me, I thought, was a desire to prove to myself, and to as many people as possible, that I was different, that I could do things that nobody, or almost nobody else, could do.”
What seems to intrigue both the narrator of “December” and Fraia is the idea of insignificance as a type of telos. The narrator reflects, “The beauty of climbing is that it’s pointless. It has no meaning, it doesn’t hide a meaning, it’s a person and a wall — that’s it.” And towards the very end of the first story, this pointlessness deescalates into active obliviousness, as Lena looks back in history for an amputee role model: “When asked how he coped, one of the thousands of soldiers maimed in the Crimean War said: the chief thing is not to think. If you don’t think, it’s nothing much. It mostly all comes from thinking.”
“May” is about a shadowy figure who comes to stay and then disappears from a remote hotel owned by another shadowy figure. The story describes the narrative ramblings of a devastated woman at a church-basement support group meeting: “She started to talk about her husband who had died, her son who’d left home, and then segued into a story about the ocean . . . Then she went back to talking about her husband and son. And, once more, to talking about the sea.” Rather than these disparate threads coming together, the narrator informs us that the woman’s “stories ran in parallel, never meeting.” The sentiment could apply to the short story collection as a whole, but also to its individual pieces. The elements — people, themes, plots — within a single story do not quite converge, let alone align or overlap. This occurs in “May,” where several characters literally come together at a remote hotel only for their stories to spin off in different directions, physical proximity and shared space being incidental to the invisible, un-integrated trajectories of their individual stories. Nilo, the owner of the hotel, “thinks that men’s stories are all one and the same.” At first, that seems entirely opposite to the idea of stories running in parallel. But are the two sentiments in fact opposed?
There is something anti-story in every story, where the force pushing towards narrative resolution (or at least compromise) is challenged by a slightly ethereal centrifugal drift which slows, and maybe even reverses, that centripetal approach. For example, Lena the hiker organizes to great acclaim the trauma and emotion of her fateful climb of Mt. Everest into a coherent story yet grows more confused about what actually happened to her, what it means, and how she remembers it. This sense of internal contradiction is further reflected when Fraia writes “with great hope also comes a great lack of hope.” In this collection, approaching something is in fact a form of alienation and avoidance.
The third and final story, “August,” is the best and quite excellent. It also is easily the most Russian — making good on the promise of the book’s title. “August” has the most definite and persistent plot. It follows the unusual and strangely affecting duo of young and listless Nadia and ineffectual past-his-prime Klaus as they work together on an utterly irrelevant if not exactly underground play about the life of 19th century Russian painter Bodgan Trunov. Isn’t that already pretty funny?
But “August” examines the dominant theme of skepticism with traditional narrative on several levels. First, the story emphasizes Trunov’s apparent indifference towards what one would expect to occupy the center of his perception and lived experience: “What’s most fascinating, Klaus said, is the way Trunov was always breathing the leaden air of war — he was up to his neck in it — but war, the war itself, never appeared in his paintings.” The Russian subject of Klaus’s play was always focusing on the story lurking around, looming over the “actual” story. This tendency lives on in 21st century Brazil in the form of Klaus, a failed playwright, who presents his “researcher” Nadia with an idea for a “rousing scene, which, of course, was far from rousing, because what Klaus liked was anything but action. He liked what he called the lingering moment.” This reminded me of Martin Amis’s point about the limits of writing outside of temporality, that it cannot really be done because it implies the breakdown of the relationship between the “beginning” and “end” of a sentence. If you transcend or reject stories and the idea of moments progressing rather than just lingering, where does that leave you with people?
That is a big question and not one that Fraia, let alone Klaus, is necessarily interested in answering. But perhaps something of a solution is to be found in the story’s comic irony. Klaus, in his role as director-playwright, is constantly getting the story wrong. Nadia explains that Klaus asked her to be his researcher for the Trunov play because “he’d noticed my interest in Russia, which wasn’t entirely accurate. I didn’t know the first thing about Russia.” Klaus then later wants to introduce her to a man he has a crush on so that Nadia can evaluate him because he thought they “had similar tastes . . . He could not have been more mistaken.”
Lethargic as it can seem, an unbreakable commitment to living by a whimsical but serious, persistent but un-rigorous feel for things qualifies as an artistic aesthetic, as a point of view capable of creating space for new possibilities, in large part because it subordinates reality to admittedly vague ideas. Your ideas with unclear provenance and your place with unclear context begin to function as a jerry-rigged approach to epistemology.
With respect to place, the common ground for the three stories is Brazil. But I would argue there is only vague recognition and reconciliation with place in “August.” Klaus mistakenly thinks Nadia is interested in Russia because he read a short story of hers which she had set in Russia, specifically “Moscow in the eighties.” But, Nadia explains, “my story, to be perfectly honest, could have taken place anywhere in the world.” Is it any surprise this placelessness trickles up and out of her fiction and she finds herself research assistant to a playwright who hates “action” and loves “lost people”? I think not.
In a bizarre story that follows two eccentric characters going nowhere fast, working on a play that is dead even before its disappointing arrival, there is something rather moving in Nadia’s rewrite. After spending all this time with Klaus on this insane, inert, and esoteric play, she begins to think about “the big picture, about my generation.” This pondering leads her “back to the story I’d been writing.” Perhaps Fraia is correct when he writes that stories do not “work” but merely iterate. But when Nadia revises her story to take place “not in Russia but in a dreary town on the southern coast of Brazil, a town with gusty mornings and white skies, with shops selling beachwear, floaties, Styrofoam boogies,” it is clear that only narrative has made it possible to do the hard work of being where you are.
To return to the dominant theme of epistemology, narrative may not offer anything that is — in the literal sense — positive. The right question, however, might not be whether a story is “new” or the “same” but rather whether it is evasive or confrontational. To participate is to confront — a time, a place, a person, a feeling — and aesthetic participation should never be confused with what, despite a surface resemblance, is its anthesis — artistic passivity. Thus, when Fraia’s Nadia writes of the narrator of her own story, “For a moment, she seemed to catch a glimpse of herself from the outside,” we know the sharp shock of distance and outside vision have triumphed over the false knowledge of blind placelessness and solipsistic interiority.
Erin Bloom is a writer living in New York City.