Emilio Fraia, Sevastopol, New Directions Publishing, 2021

Reviewed by Maddie Woda

[Review Guidelines]



In 1855, Tolstoy published a triptych piece depicting the absurdity of the Crimean War, particular the Siege of Sevastopol between 1854 and 1855. Emilio Fraia draws upon this tripartite structure in his new novel, Sevastopol, translated from the Portuguese. The stories share little other than being set in Brazil, no overlapping characters or forged connections. They are divided by months: December, May, and August, the same structure Tolstoy employed while surveying Sevastopol at war. "The stories ran in parallel, never meeting," the novel says of a woman speaking at group therapy. Fraia seems to use this line as his guiding principle, allowing the reader to connect the themes as they see fit. 
     The stories in Sevastopol examine varying states of loss: of life, of ambition, of reassurance. The first story then, set in December, is the most literal. It is narrated in second person, just as part I of Tolstoy's The Sevastopol Sketches is recounted. A young Brazilian woman is obsessed with becoming the first woman to mount the Seven Summits, motivated by "a desire to prove" herself—to others or to herself, we don't know. While summiting Mt. Everest, the inevitable conclusion to her challenge, she falls and becomes trapped in a crevasse of ice, ultimately losing her legs. When she returns from the expedition, newly disabled, she spins her grief into a career giving TED Talks and motivational speeches at corporate functions. Her dream becomes impossible, supplanted by new goals. Her loss is gory and specific, balanced by an unnerving, ephemeral loss of identity. Gino, the filmmaker who accompanied her on climbs, creates a documentary with a plot strikingly similar to own. "Or is it, despite all this, everything that happened today was simply a misunderstanding, a unique coincidence?" she asks herself, watching the film at a museum. "If that's the case, I must apologize," she states, unable to claim her story as her own.
     The middle part, set in May, recounts the disappearance of a Brazilian-Peruvian man while staying at a rural Brazilian inn. We learn about Adán's disappearance from Nilo, the old innkeeper in whom Adán has confided. This section does not have the clarity of the first; it attempts to weave in Peruvian political history and the colorism Adán regularly faces while not particularly illuminating either subject. The loss is never shocking, not like the disaster of the first section. When we learn of Adán, he has already disappeared.
     Finally, we arrive in August to follow Nadia, a young writer in São Paolo. Together with an older, eccentric playwright, she writes a play about the atrocities and mundanities of the Crimean War. Sevastopol is never mentioned, but it is clear the author has taken pains to connect the content and the form of the novel by introducing this topic. The play is a flop and her co-playwright moves away unexpectedly, simply telling her, "I can't stay any longer." In using Tolstoy's form, Fraia requires the reader to examine how we define loss, what we allow to qualify as painful even if it is only painful to us. Tolstoy's goal was to emphasize the senselessness of violence, the absurdity of such a war. Fraia, following in this tradition, emphasizes the randomness of loss, how impossible it is to draw meaning from pain. In the end, as Tolstoy implied of war, "it came out of nowhere and seemed to have no end."