“Trunov was always breathing the leaden air of war—he was up to his neck in it—but war, the war itself,” Emilio Fraia writes, “never appeared in his paintings.”
The line is a mini-essay on atmosphere, and a compelling case for the kind of fiction Fraia writes. As with other elements throughout his new collection, Sevastopol, the details here are less concerned with the art itself than with the absence it creates. Trunov’s resistance to looking at conflict head-on is an attempt to both cope with and get at the truth, and an acknowledgment of the futility of the exercise.
Conflict is one of the building blocks of fiction, though often it’s merely scaffolding for more interesting ideas, images, or characters. Yet in certain stories—what may be called the fiction of avoidance, aftermath, or reverb—conflict is not present at all. Instead, the conflict is background, setup, the scuzzy noise behind the untidy complications of living. European American modernists may supply the most famous examples of this, but their kin stretch across the globe. Roberto Bolaño’s The Third Reich (2011) uses the provocatively named game of the title to set up a story of a German man who spirals into paranoia while on vacation. The filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, whose films often gesture at violent genre tropes, uses the markers of conflict as a way to indirectly examine desire and longing. Life is not always crisis; crisis is not always a singular moment. First there is the War, then there is the Peace, and while the former is essentially human, the latter is more psychologically complex.
Fraia had Tolstoy in mind when writing Sevastopol, published in June 2021 by New Directions in a translation from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry. The stories draw their structure and titles from the Sevastopol Sketches, Tolstoy’s firsthand account of the siege of Crimea. The Sketches, considered a precursor to War and Peace, is an antiwar text, a three-part snapshot of a young writer’s disillusionment.
What makes the Sevastopol Sketches a work of literature, and not just an act of witness, is that, at its core, it is concerned with storytelling. Its three tales, of a fallen city at three different moments in its decline, are three attempts to describe the indescribable, to find the right angle to name the horrors of war, when one is fully immersed in it, and losing. Fraia’s stories do the same, but for modern life.
Take the first story of Sevastopol. Here, a mountain climber named Lena wanders into an art gallery and sees two photographs: “In one of them, a lightbulb hanging from a ceiling painted bright red. In the other, in black and white, a silver-colored sea under a single cloud. The bulb and the cloud were the same size and seemed to somehow talk to each other.” The matter-of-fact prose matches the ordinary phenomenon being described: the desire to extract meaning from an arrangement of objects, to interpret art. What makes the passage unusual is the author’s refusal to answer the question of whether the photographs are connected. He resists the novelist’s impulse to impose order, to make connections explicit, to bring them into conflict with each other.
Instead, Fraia flips the question back to the reader: Which matters more, intent or interpretation? What if a juxtaposition of images in literature or art is just that—a chance encounter? What if the objects never actually meet?
In a New Yorker interview that accompanies an excerpt of Sevastopol published in 2019 (notably, the first Brazilian short story to be translated into English for the magazine), Fraia said that “an air of conflict and defeat runs throughout—which also has to do with Brazil today, and the appalling election of the Bolsonaro government.” But Jair Bolsonaro, whom Fraia calls a “corrupt mafioso” in another interview, doesn’t appear in the stories. There are no scenes of death or destruction, only absence, disappearance. This atmosphere echoes the methods of the artist Trunov, whose art seemed wholly conflictless, even he was “up to his neck” in defeat and conflict.
The connection between Fraia’s contemporary Brazilian stories and a war that ended in 1856 is not immediately apparent. Both are told in three parts: December, May, and August. The surface similarities end there.
In Fraia’s “December,” Lena recounts a harrowing expedition to Mount Everest and the years of fallout afterward. “May” shifts the camera to Adan, a guest at a deserted country inn, as he tells the story of a family tragedy involving a guinea pig. In “August,” a young writer named Nadia describes her creative partnership with an eccentric playwright, Klaus, and their attempt to stage a play about a forgotten Russian painter named Bogdan Trunov.
The characters’ suffering is, for the most part, internal. Their crises are lowercase, personal. And yet, there is something dreadful looming on their shared horizon.
It’s difficult to pin down evidence that we are living in an era of decline, though plenty of writers have tried to do so. For Americans, the Trump era sliding into the pandemic has been a time of deep, destabilizing shame. The parallels with Brazil are clear: an unquestioned regional and cultural power, suddenly brought to its knees.
But when you try to discuss it, to write about it, you end up talking about vague, sprawling problems that have been around forever: inequality, colonialism, despotism, racism. The interconnectedness makes the issues more confusing.
In a talk hosted by the Brooklyn Public Library in June 2021, Fraia acknowledged that his book is not a novel but is meant to “be experienced like one.” A novel-like experience implies coherence. Usually that is achieved through the narrator, a single consciousness to filter the world through, or plot, a linear progression from A to Z. But Fraia instead chooses to blur and fracture his narrators, and to locate the coherence in something looser: atmosphere, mood, or—in today’s parlance—vibe.
A vibe is, by definition, inexplicable. To say Sevastopol’s vibe is a bit gloomy, desolate, styled in a color palette that includes grays, greens, and violets, is both true and inexact. The vibe accumulates over time and amounts to something. But exactly what remains evasive, thrillingly open-ended.
Fraia’s stories follow a fragmented and spiraling structure. They move fluidly through time and slip seamlessly from voice to voice, blending narrators and characters, present and past, fiction and reality. Certain images—a sky with a single cloud, a couple walking down a widening avenue, an uncanny stone bust—repeat across the nested tales, with slight variations. The only satisfaction lies in finishing the cycle and returning to the start, like watching a video on loop.
Fraia is not the first writer to favor tonal unity over structural. Modernist writers famously used allusion, ellipses, and indirect speech to expose the psychological dissonance of the postwar era. The premise of Henry Green’s Partygoing (1939) is a choking fog that no one can see and everyone can feel. Virginia Woolf’s narrators slip between intrusive memories and their daily lives, as if past and present exist on a singular plane. Even writers who make use of formally traditional narratives, like Hemingway, are frank about their flirtations with nihilism (“Our nada who art in nada”). The only certainty in those works is uncertainty.
A resurgence of modernist tactics may be apt for current-day Brazil or America. In “December,” Lena recounts her college years, and how she decided against a degree in international relations, because mountaineering was what “really mattered” to her: “And that’s how I put it: what really mattered to me. Which was true, because at that time what really mattered to me were the expeditions, days on the mountain, getting in touch with nature, the thinly veiled vanity of posting a photo at six a.m. surrounded by the ice, some vague idea of isolation and overcoming.”
Zoe Perry’s translation is wonderfully elastic here, alternating between taut and slack, like a climber’s ropes. The set-phrase “what really mattered” rings bitter and hollow in Lena’s repetition. Sentence fragments build on each other, expanding as the list progresses; but instead of reaching a grandiose summit, the sentence deflates at the end: thinly veiled vanity, vague idea.
Lena speaks to a larger disillusionment. It’s easy to imagine being in her shoes, brought up to believe that the pursuit of an individual passion would lead to spiritual fulfilment. The social media, the abandoned international relations degree, the sideways glance at the Romantic cure of using impersonal Nature to get outside oneself: all culminate in the storyteller’s flat detachment from former beliefs. There’s no solution here, no relief.
As much as there is to be said about the literary traditions that Sevastopol fits into, I was more immediately struck by its similarities to visual media, in particular, film. Critics deem some books “cinematic”; it’s never been clear to me whether this is a compliment or an insult. The word conjures up Freytag’s pyramid: that rickety old roller coaster of rising action, climax, and denouement. Forced conflict, the cheap thrill of fake fear. Feasts of gunfire and car crashes and sex. Getting to the end and letting viewers off the hook, releasing them to their homes and families, to a good night’s sleep. Are you not entertained?
But what if “cinematic” instead echoes Lena’s observations of the photographs? Perhaps a cinematic book is one that simply lets its images be. It tells the reader: you sequence them, and decide what happens in between. If you want, let them stay isolated, shifting slightly toward and away from one another, vibrating occasionally.
Great movies play with this liminal space, this room for imaginative fill-in-the-blank. Watching the new restoration of Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express earlier this summer, I was struck by how much the opening sequence relies on viewer expectations. A shaky camera follows a mysterious woman in a blonde wig through a tunnel-like structure; she moves quickly and looks back once, with the intent to lose whoever’s on her tail. Along her path we glimpse other figures in blurred shadow; a man eating at a plastic fast-food table, a child ordering sweets from a stand. The blonde gets into an elevator, enters a cramped bedroom full of men, and the scene cuts to chimneys blowing smoke across the night sky. Jilty and enigmatic, the setup is a play on and ode to genre film. And yet, the thriller we are preparing for never quite materializes.
Instead, we get an unexpected love story. The woman botches a drug smuggling, kidnaps and returns a child, and, eventually, has a shootout with a seemingly random stranger, whom she kills. But at her wits’ end, she walks into a bar. This is when the story actually begins. At the bar she is approached by a sad-sack policeman known only as 223, who is drinking to forget a breakup. They spend the night together, not quite connecting per se, but not falling further into despair either. They separate the next morning.
Life is not always crisis; crisis is not always a singular moment.
Chungking Express is a story about fracture; about building oneself back up after personal disaster. It’s set in the transient space of the Chungking Mansions, a crumbling, midcentury commercial tower in the bustling Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong that boasts a daily foot traffic of 10,000. Full of hostels and cheap eats, it was once the landing place for many new arrivals to the island—the kind of place where one could shed her old self and start fresh, as the assassin does when she dons her blonde wig, or as the policeman does when he walks into the bar.
It’s also the perfect location for serendipitous encounters. “Every day we brush past so many other people,” 223 says in the opening voice-over: “People we may never meet, or people who may become close friends.” His tone is wistful; as high as the potential is for romance in such a setting, the same goes for missed connections, or even violence. No one knows this better than a police officer. In a crowd of strangers, you could meet a potential lover as easily as your potential killer.
The movie was released in 1994, amid the colonial handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. In the film you can see the city’s shifting identities; in the bar scene, 223 tries to pick up the assassin in Cantonese, Japanese, English, and finally Mandarin, before she answers him. Brands like McDonald’s are prominently displayed; the largely African and Indian sellers at the mall hawk electronics, luggage, and homestyle cooking. The policemen are never seen policing; it’s easy to assume an uneasy peace between the disparate factions.
The second half of the film focuses on a different love story, featuring another lonely policeman, Tony Leung’s iconic 663. This time, the thriller premise is dropped. Instead, we are drawn into more intimate spaces. 663, like 223 before him, frequents the Midnight Express, a kebab shop owned by a Hong Kong local, who employs his niece Faye behind the counter. Faye is a dreamy sort, who likes to blast the Mamas and the Papas and the Cranberries as she wipes down the grimy surfaces. She eventually becomes obsessed with 663, taking advantage of the handoff of a key to break into his apartment, clean it, and replace all his old belongings. Before he even notices her effect on him, Faye assumes a new identity and leaves for America. After her departure, 663 pines for her in a California-themed bar while sipping a Mexican beer.
Between Faye and 663, the assassin and 223, there is a sense of a wish unfulfilled, even after their happy unions. Perhaps this is the dissociative quality of globalization: the sense that we could be anywhere, and anyone, that we are watching our lives play out in multiple locations, multiple timelines at once, and the freedom and loneliness in that.
Maybe what troubles them is a broader question. Amid rapid historical and political upheaval, will what comes next really be better than what came before? Or maybe it’s simply the sadness baked into any love affair, due to the inevitability of grief.
Maybe this is our leaden air of war. It’s the tumult of personal and political constantly colliding, giving us new information, subverting the old stories we’ve always told ourselves.
To Air Is Human
Of the three ethereal stories in Sevastopol, “August” is the most concrete, due to a lived-in sense of place. São Paolo, where Fraia was born and still lives, factors largely into the story. Klaus is a lonely German émigré living in a rundown flat near the city center. He and Nadia regularly dine at the “musty trattoria[s]” of Bixiga, the city’s Little Italy. They spend long nights together, doing nothing. Nadia describes them: “Drunk, we’d roam the streets of República, along Avenida São Luís, past the gray boulevards, the tangled nests of wires on telephone poles, the guys giving blow jobs in dark alleys, the statue of an Indian whose shadow bore down on the transvestites who gathered at Largo do Arouche to smoke joints. Sometimes we stopped and smoked with them.”
In these quick cuts, Klaus and Nadia move frantically, yet languorously. They hurry along until they stop, and the scene dissolves in smoke. Their activities are intentional, yet purposeless. They are acting like artists, absorbing their surroundings, making themselves a part of the shadow-city. But Nadia, like Lena before her, doesn’t quite believe in what she’s doing. The streets are dim and dull to her; a series of unrelated images. They could be anywhere and thus are nowhere. She is numb.
Nadia’s conflict is neither internal nor external, but somewhere between. Fraia’s storytelling, like Wong’s, gestures at a collapsing of the self. Thanks to factors beyond our control—transfers of power, the internet, globalization’s totalizing grip—we are constantly slipping in and out of consciousness, inhabiting minds and lives that may or may not be our own. Our internal realities permeate our external ones. We watch helplessly as our selves divide and disperse, transformed into particulates, microscopic droplets floating in the air. We try to find the right story to hold us all together, but no single narrative seems to fit. All we can point to is whether the vibe is good or off.
When the tools of fiction no longer serve us, we can discard them. Instead of seeking relief in a singular order—in the resolution of conflict—perhaps we ought to adjust our expectations. Perhaps we ought to stand quietly in the gallery together and stare at the white space, locating the truth in our collective imagining, without ever pinning it down.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.