domingo, 7 de janeiro de 2024

in a sleepy, blue, sort of phosphorescent way

Conversa com a tradutora Zoë Perry sobre o Sebastopol, na revista inglesa Partisan Hotel. Edição de Dominic Jaeckle.

Emilio FRAIA’s SEVASTOPOL (a novel translated from the Portuguese by Zoë PERRY) contains three distinct narratives, each burrowing into a crucial turning point in a person’s life: a young woman gives a melancholy account of her obsession with climbing Mount Everest; a Peruvian-Brazilian vanishes into the forest after staying in a musty, semi-abandoned inn somewhere in the haunted depths of the Brazilian countryside; a young playwright embarks on the production of a play about the city of Sevastopol and a Russian painter portraying Crimean War soldiers. 

Inspired by TOLSTOY’s THE SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES, FRAIA masterfully weaves together these stories of yearning and loss, obsession and madness, failure and the desire to persist.

“We started our descent. We were already at camp one when one of the ropes fixed across a crevasse came loose. An ice pack shifted. I lost my balance and fell. My legs got stuck. It all happened so fast. I felt hot, like something warm had been placed on my knees, something that didn’t allow me to think of anything else. While I waited for the search and rescue team, I was sure I was going to die.

Dozens of people die on Everest every season. Search and rescue is difficult. There are many sections helicopters don’t have access to.

In the ambulance, I had hallucinations.

In one of them, I found myself in the middle of a lawn around an isolated house, flanked by a stream and a row of eucalyptus trees, and I felt a sudden pain. I called Téo and he said he thought we’d better go back. He seemed upset. He’d planned to go mountain biking that day and now this. We put our backpacks in the car and left. On the road, he told me to breathe, relax, he said that deep down it was all my fault: you need to eat better, Lena, eat less meat, do yoga, change your routine, make your body an instrument for expanding and knowing the soul, etc.

He turned on the stereo and scrolled through his phone searching for some song. He stayed like that, looking at the screen, looking at the road, the road getting swallowed up under the headlights, his head moving in a sleepy, blue, sort of phosphorescent way, detached from the darkness like the bust of a statue. At one point, he turned to me and I thought he wanted to tell me something. But he said nothing. He looked back down and kept fiddling with his phone, looking at the screen, then at the road.

Outside, the brush that covered almost the entire shoulder bowed in the breeze, the sky was a puddle of oil, dozing peacefully behind a single cloud, and we were submerged in a feeling of darkness when suddenly something lit up. I didn’t have time to turn, Téo looked up, and I think we both saw it at the same time, a blur lumbering across the asphalt in front of us: I screamed and he braked, the wheels locked and the car came dragging to a stop, about two metres from it, now staring at us. The mane. A screech and hooves; the animal ambled off, sluggish—and vanished.”

FRAIA— The above excerpt is from the first of three stories in SEVASTOPOL, a scene I wrote many years ago, before I’d even thought about the book. You could say it was from this image, and around it, that the story fell into place.

Lena, a young mountaineer who dreams of climbing the Seven Summits, suffers an accident on the mountain. It’s in the first-person, she’s telling what happened and when she gets to the moment of the accident, there’s a cut: the story jumps from the accident to a kind of dream, a memory, in which she and her ex-boyfriend are away on a weekend trip. They’re in the countryside, a nice place, like so many in the interior of the state of São Paulo, and plan to spend the day mountain biking. But suddenly Lena is in pain. We don’t know why. So they have to abandon their plans for the weekend and go back to the city. The reaction of Téo, her boyfriend, isn’t the best. In the car driving back, he criticizes Lena’s habits and behaviour. He seems impatient, annoyed, upset. What I wanted to do was show a certain disconnect between them, her loneliness, a growing tension, which culminates with the animal that suddenly appears in the middle of the road, right in front of the car.

I was glad when you agreed to translate SEVASTOPOL, Zoë. I wanted to know how the book’s narrators would sound through your words. The first and third stories are narrated by women. In both cases (Gino and Lena in the first story; Klaus and Nadia in the third), these narrators are closely engaged with male characters, and particularly with the way the men see them. I wanted to make this tension between the narrators and these men the subject of the stories as well.

The first story in the book, the one in the above excerpt—I don’t know if you agree with me—but it’s about that too: the way a man (Gino) sees the narrator (Lena). She seems locked into that gaze, to the point that we no longer know who’s in control. When she comes across a film, at an art gallery, a film that seems to be telling her story, that story both is and isn’t her own. And that’s what gives shape to the story, internally. Is this man the one telling her story? There’s a tension between the voices. In the end, which is more true: the story she tells (in her motivational speaking engagements and self-help books), or the story told by someone else, by this man she assumes is the video’s creator; the heart-warming story of resilience she created for herself, or the story told from Gino’s point of view? How can we take back control of our stories? But what does it mean to be in control? Will that make the story any more true? Canadian photographer Jeff Wall has a photo I like a lot, ‘Picture for Women.’ In one scene, divided into three parts, there’s a woman (looking straight ahead), a camera in the middle, and the photographer on the right. It’s an ambiguous commentary on female representation through the male gaze.

So, having you as the translator of the book tightened that screw one final turn, and I’m really pleased about that. I tried to avoid ‘female’ discourse markers or mimicking the tropes expected from “women’s” or “intimist” literature. In your work as a translator, do you feel like there are different ways to approach male or female narrators? Specifically in this story in the book, how did you try to connect with the narrator’s tone of voice?

PERRY— The scene with Téo and Lena in the car is one of my favourites—I’m glad you picked it. What I really enjoy about all the stories in SEVASTOPOL is how layered and murky they are. All these narrators are a bit unreliable in their own way. As a reader, you often question who’s telling the story, whose story it is, whether the story you started reading is still the same by the end, or even where a story begins and ends. I love the little details that pop up across all three like Easter eggs. The bowing brush and rows of eucalyptus trees mentioned in the section you selected above, for example, send me right back to the looming stands of eucalyptus surrounding Nilo’s property in ‘May’.

As far the actual work goes, I don’t necessarily take a different approach depending on the gender of the narrator. Voice is intersectional. But a good translation rests on nailing voice, and out of the three stories, I have to admit that Lena’s is the one I found most challenging. I’ve tried to pin down what it was about Lena that I wrestled with, and I think in large part it’s because I had very little in common with her, and I often struggled to warm to her. As odd as it sounds, I felt much more of an affinity for Klaus, the drunk, over-the-hill playwright who rides the bus around São Paulo all day cruising, than for the ultra-competitive climber who created a career as a motivational speaker... and is also a woman.

When I first read ‘August’ and was introduced to Klaus, I instantly felt like I’d met ‘that guy’ before. If a voice feels familiar to me, then ultimately it should be easier to coax out. Translators are world class eavesdroppers. I’ve spent years riding buses around London and other cities, listening in on conversations. We devour playlists, podcasts, films, attempting to build up that voice’s universe around us. Something I’ve really missed during the pandemic is sitting in a crowded café and just consuming human interactions.

You said you wrote this excerpt several years ago, before you’d ever thought about the book. This project came about quite differently from other books I’ve translated, and I worked on each story at its own particular time, in different places, starting back in 2018. It was actually a remarkable way to approach a book like this and I really appreciated being able to sit with these wonderful stories and hang out with these characters for so long, and across so many places and spaces. I’m curious about how SEVASTOPOL came to be and what your process was like in writing the book. Were the stories written at different times, in different places? Did you always set out to create a triptych?

FRAIA— Lena is a difficult character, I agree with you, she’s not easily likable, and it’s wonderful to know you found that same resistance during the translation. She was the most complicated character for me to create as well. Although I enjoy trekking, hiking and nature, I don’t climb, I’ve never been to Everest, I have practically nothing in common with her or that world. But the biggest challenge here, in my opinion, has to do with something else, which is what also attracted me, and what in a way led me to write the story: even though she has the confidence of an unreliable narrator, what does Lena actually believe at the moment the story is being told? That was the question for me. This creates a challenge of technique, it’s not that easy to see who she really is, to get a feel for her or, ultimately, to even like her.

We know she used to be an ambitious climber, we know she had an accident and that she became a kind of motivational speaker. We know she started to tell her story about overcoming adversity to corporate audiences, in online videos, TED Talks. And little by little, she uncovers strategies for how to move, how to rally a crowd—and she turns her story, her private life, into a format, into a type of ‘narrative’ and, of course, into money. (There’s a moment when she realizes that success is directly linked to people identifying with what she has to tell/show: ‘People identified with me, and I soon understood that this identification was a key, a key that could open all doors’. The secret, she says, is to inspire, to be ‘authentic’ and in that way please people, get compliments, followers, etc. We’re all familiar with this. Social media does it. Bad politics, too. And this is exactly the opposite of good fiction or art—and the kind of truths they give rise to.)

But she’s at a kind of narrative dead end. Suddenly the stories she’s told others and herself are no longer working. So at the moment the story is being told, we don’t know what’s going to happen to her, we don’t know who she is. She seems to no longer be the person she once was, but she’s not yet somebody else.

This is mirrored in Nadia’s pursuit, in the third story of the book—someone who makes an infinitely gentler and more sympathetic narrator than Lena—as she’s writing and rewriting the same story. It’s almost as if Nadia were alongside Lena in this quest, drafting ways out, possibilities. These relationships between the stories interested me from the very beginning. And even though I don’t really feel entitled to call SEVASTOPOL a novel, a lot of times that’s how I’d like people to read it or to at least think about it that way. That these stories, positioned next to each other, might lead to some sort of effect.

I wrote the stories in order, inspired by the three moments of the Crimean War as told by Tolstoy in the SEVASTOPOL SKETCHES. While I was writing, the political situation in Brazil was just starting to take a really dark and bewildering turn, which would only get worse. So I thought about doing something that wasn’t a mirror, but a commentary on that atmosphere. But stories that weren’t political on their surface, something really personal and intimate. At the very beginning of the book Lena says that events are like bandages that we have to wrap and unwrap, as carefully as possible. I think this is what the narrators are doing throughout the book, until a kind of final summation from Nadia: ‘I thought about the big picture, about my generation, crushed by another ten, fifteen years of paralysis.’

Actually, something that made me really happy in the translation was seeing how you managed to make those sometimes very subtle elements and atmospheres travel through the stories. Do you belong to the team of translators who usually read the entire book before translating, or do you like to discover the story as you translate? Do you usually read a lot of translated literature? Is it true that in countries like the United States and England today there is a boom in contemporary translated literature?

PERRY— Those relationships between the stories, I think, are what make SEVASTOPOL such an appealing read. Each story absolutely stands on its own, but when you put the three together something kind of magical happens and everything gets magnified. Is it a novel? Maybe not, but it’s also not a typical collection of short stories. I love the short story as a form, but there are times you just want the depth of a novel. What you’ve done is create stories that satisfy that desire for depth and breadth.

But it’s interesting that we’re talking about the book as a whole and in its parts, because this ties in with my approach to the translation, specifically the circumstances surrounding this project, which were a little different. In the beginning I was sent ‘May’ to translate as a sample, before the book was published in Brazil. Five or six months later we were still pitching, and I translated ‘August’; and then finally I worked on ‘December’ after the book had been acquired. Looking back now, I realise I basically did one story a year, with everything kind of marinating nicely in between. So, I wasn’t actually presented with the stories as one whole work at first. And I suppose it’s also worth noting that I did them out of order, inadvertently saving the first one for last. But if a publisher had approached me saying ‘We’d like you translate this book we’ve acquired, here it is,’ then I’d like to think I would have read the entire book before starting, and also started from page one.

I see this ‘debate’ flare up among translators on Twitter a few times a year and people try to justify their reasons for either reading or not reading a book first. For some I think it’s genuinely just about saving time. Others say they want to be surprised and discover the book as a reader—okay, but by the time you finish a translation, you’ll have read the whole thing several times over and, frankly, drained every last drop of mystery by asking your author to explain things that were probably never meant to be explained to a reader. The idea of not reading a book before starting honestly freaks me out a bit (what if the last half of the book is terrible?) but is that because it’s not a sound strategy? Or is it just because I’m a Virgo who likes to have control? Is it easy for me to say that? SEVASTOPOL is just under 120 pages—no one’s ever asked me to translate a doorstopper.

So, I can say it’s my rule to read a book before translating, but that’s not actually what I did with SEVASTOPOL, and I’d like to think that worked out fine. I think we all need to do whatever works best for each of us, and that can change from project to project. I’m not sure I’ve ever worked the same way twice on a book translation. I used to think I was just trying to hammer out my own method, but now that I’ve been doing literary translation for almost ten years, I’m not sure there is one best way (though there are certainly things I’ll never do again).

Very little literature in translation gets published in the UK or the US compared to other countries, so ‘boom’ may be relative. But I do see translated literature becoming a lot more visible, and translators becoming more visible with it. I read a lot of translated literature; I think most translators do. One of the flipsides of being a reader in a country where relatively little literature in translation gets published is that what does get published has had to clear so many hurdles just to make it to the shelves. It’s often a lot better than the homegrown variety, though that still feels like a secret. I also just like reading my friends’ work. And not that the argument that reading translated literature opens you up to worlds and points of view that are unfamiliar to you isn’t valid, but I think, much like travel, part of the beauty of reading translations it they often show us just how similar humans are.

You’ll often hear editors claim that short stories are harder to sell in English-speaking countries. I’d love to see that change. I think Brazil has some spectacular short story writers and generally I feel like I see more of them on the shelves there. Do you think Brazilian publishers are less afraid to publish stories? Or that Brazilian readers are more open to them? Do you find the process of writing stories different to writing a novel, and do you have a preference?

FRAIA— The same thing happens in Brazil, it’s the same story from publishers everywhere: short stories don't sell, we want novels. Maybe it’s just the general lack of time nowadays or that people have difficulty concentrating, but short books, with 100, 150 pages, have really taken off. But not collections of short stories. Some of Brazil’s greatest authors have written perfect short stories: Sérgio SANT’ANNA, Rubem FONSECA, Clarice LISPECTOR, Guimarães ROSA, Lygia FAGUNDES TELLES, Machado de ASSIS. In Latin America, BORGES, ONETTI, and CORTÁZAR turned everything on its ear with short stories. Julio Ramón RYBEIRO, Silvina OCAMPO, Adolfo Bioy CASARES, Felisberto HERNÁNDEZ. It’s almost impossible to talk about 20th century literature down here without seeing the short story as something central. Rodrigo FRESÁN has an excellent theory that THE DREAM OF HEROES, by Bioy CASARES, is the greatest novel in Argentine literature, the most perfect novel. FRESÁN says that ADAM BUENOSAYRES, ON HEROES & TOMBS, HOPSCOTCH, FACUNDO, ARTIFICIAL RESPIRATION are all rambling, episodic novels, prisoners of the ghost of the short story, the reigning genre of Argentine literature. And what makes THE DREAM OF HEROES so special is it pays homage to that strangeness, because it’s a novel that’s trying the whole time to recall a story: what happened in a single night. It’s both a short story and a novel, at the same time.

Those are of particular interest to me, these books that seem to disrupt genre. These sort of fluid formats. Books where we follow along with the dramas of the characters, the development of the plot, but at the same time there’s this feeling of... something different in the air, something pointing outward, to a strange place, that we aren’t quite sure what it is. I really like the films by Korean filmmaker Hong SANG-SOO. I think he succeeds, in his own way, in building something along those lines. I like the books by Mexican author Mario BELLATIN. OPTIC NERVE, by Argentine writer María GAINZA, is a book I recently read with great pleasure. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED, by Anne CARSON. These are formats that make us reassess our expectations of what it means to read a book or watch a film, to rethink what kind of experiences we’re seeking.

It’s funny now to think about the way you translated SEVASTOPOL, starting with the second part, going through the third and finally arriving at the first. It really is quite unusual, and it seems to also match the way I wrote the book. I said earlier that I wrote the stories in order, but now, on second thought, I don’t think that’s exactly true. I did try to structure them so that they made sense in the order in which they appear in the book. So that they commune with Tolstoy’s stories in Sevastopol. But it was undoubtedly a much more disorderly and fragmentary experience, and I think that’s reflected in the stories within stories in the book. In the end, the truth is we don’t have much of a choice, do we? We can only write what we can write. Efforts don’t matter much. Hungarian writer Péter ESTERHÁZY says a writer’s style has more to do with what he doesn’t know than with what he does know. I totally agree with that.

And there are the words. It all comes down to them. One thing I often think about when I’m writing is this: beyond the plot and themes, the characters and the tone, there are always the words. Using one word means not using another. And this seems to me to be an issue in the translation process as well. To finish our conversation, Zoë—and I’d just like to thank you for this exchange, for your friendship, and for having recreated the words of the book so well and obsessively—I’d like to know something perhaps a bit abstract about you, but that intrigues me: by choosing a word in your language, you’re putting it out into circulation, bringing all that that word implies to the book. How do you make that relationship, those choices? Do you usually consult colleagues, what kind of dictionaries? When do you know you’re finished, how do you get to a result, to a system of equivalencies you’re satisfied with?

PERRY— I love these attempts to blur the lines between genres. I’m always drawn to texts that break the rules in interesting ways. Anne CARSON and Mario BELLATIN are also favourites of mine. Another Brazilian author I translate is Veronica STIGGER, and I think she also plays with genre in innovative and almost subversive ways.

I really like that line from ESTERHÁZY, and while I agree with the idea as far as a writer’s style, when it comes to translation, I think it’s all about what you know. Something I believe Margaret JULL COSTA once told me was how important it is for translators to know what you don’t know. Second guess everything. Is what you think is happening on the page really happening? Sometimes it turns out to be a typo. Sometimes it’s a false friend, and if your brain is on autopilot, or you’re working too quickly, you’ll read right past it. I think translators of Romance languages have to be particularly careful about cross-contamination. I remember reading a translation of a Brazilian story several years ago and the characters stopped on the side of the road to buy fresh sugar cane juice, which they had with cake. My jaw instantly clenched imagining this sugar bomb and then I realized pretty quickly what had happened. Caldo de cana and pastel, that classic Brazilian sweet and savoury combination, becomes something very different if you’re used to seeing the word pastel in Spanish, or even in European Portuguese.

And yes, words! It really does all come down to them. It’s a lot of weight! My first drafts can be close to unreadable. There are a few reasons for that, but mostly it’s because I have terrible commitment issues on the first pass and almost every sentence gets filled/clogged/crammed/packed with variations/alternatives/options. There’s a lot of ‘phone a friend,’ whether it’s to Brazilian friends or family, or other translators who work from Portuguese (or who specifically don’t). My mother-in-law was always a good resource because she was one of the few Brazilians I know who’s both fascinated by language and its usage but barely speaks a word of English. Usually my questions aren’t ‘what does this mean?’, but ‘what does this mean to you?’ or ‘would you say this to your grandmother?’ ‘how would someone make you feel if they said this to you?’ And of course, it’s not just about the words in the original text, but the words in English, too. I read widely in English, I have a half dozen little notebooks and memos on my phone where I jot down turns of phrase or sayings that I hear.

Occasionally I’ll be asked, by a writer or an editor, why I went with one word instead of another, and I’m not always able to give a good answer. I remember with my first book translation, ALL DOGS ARE BLUE by Rodrigo de SOUZA LEÃO, there was a word in the first line that my co-translator and I spent literal hours discussing before committing to our specific choice and the editor quite casually changed it and we had to make our case. And I try not to look too closely at translations once they’re published. I’m not sure a translation is ever truly finished, it’s just the moment in time when you pulled the plug, and all its myriad choices get set on paper.

I think we could keep this lovely back and forth going (and I hope that we will, unofficially!) Thank you for being such a warm, available, and generous author to work with, and for writing such a brilliant book, which makes any translator’s job easier. Now, in the words of Klaus, ‘Onward, champion!’. 

Emilio FRAIA was born in Sao Paulo in 1982. His new book SEVASTOPOL, translated by Zoe PERRY, was recently published by New Directions in the US and Lolli Editions in the UK. FRAIA was named one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Writers. He was awarded a Civitella Ranieri Writing Fellowship and named a fellow of the Shanghai Writing Program. In English, his fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, One Grand Journal and the Two Lines anthology PASSAGEWAYS.

Zoë PERRY’s translations of contemporary Brazilian literature have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Words Without Borders and The White Review. She is a founding member of The Starling Bureau, a literary translators’ collective and was selected for a Banff International Translation Centre residency for her translation of Emilio Fraia’s SEVASTOPOL.

sexta-feira, 5 de janeiro de 2024

porque são impossíveis de serem ditas

Entrevista sobre o Sebastopol para o World Literature Today.

Emilio Fraia’s Sevastopol, out this summer from New Directions, is the sort of book that beguiles and dazzles in equal measure. Consisting of three disparate stories—of a mountain climber attempting to scale Mt. Everest, a mysterious loner who vanishes into the Brazilian countryside, and an avant-garde production set during the Crimean War—the book is an enigma: Is it a linked collection, a “novel-in-stories,” or something else entirely? Fluidly translated by Zoë Perry, the work came together over an extended period, with sections first published in Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists issue in 2012 and the New Yorker in 2019. Fraia, who lives in São Paulo, spoke over email about Sevastopol, the shadowy realms of fiction, and the “Fora Bolsonaro” movement, among other things. 

Anderson Tepper: Emilio, before I ask you about the book, I want to know how things are in Brazil right now and what is happening with the pandemic. 

Emilio Fraia: So far, some 560,000 Brazilians have died, the direct result of Bolsonaro’s criminal conduct during the pandemic. He has made countless statements against the vaccine, against wearing masks, and in favor of ineffective drug therapies. At no point during this tragedy has the president uttered a single word of true grief for victims of the virus. And as if that weren’t enough, now his government is embroiled in a bribery scandal involving the purchase of overpriced vaccines, and every day we see clearer and clearer plans for a coup taking shape. It’s frightening to think about the trapdoor opened by Bolsonaro’s government—a man who openly celebrated the dictatorship, torture, and militias—all in broad daylight. It’s frightening that a portion of the population still feels represented by a corrupt mafioso like him. The path Brazil has taken is the worst one possible, and it will take us a long time to recover from the damage. 

Tepper: How widespread have the protests been against Bolsonaro, and is the “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro Out) movement gathering force? The fact that they happened against the backdrop of the Copa America tournament in July reminded me of the clashes before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. 

Fraia: At the height of the pandemic, Bolsonaro hosted dozens of rallies in support of a coup d’état, a self-coup. They were overflowing with maskless crowds, a macabre spectacle. Now, with vaccinations gaining strength, opposition to the government has taken to the streets. I believe the protests will intensify. Over the last month, Bolsonaro’s popularity has started to chip away—for the first time, the majority in the country now supports his impeachment. And it’s interesting that you mention soccer. The 2014 World Cup marked the beginning of mixed feelings toward the Brazilian team. The yellow-and-green jersey became a symbol for a breed of nationalism that would become identified with Bolsonarism. The recent defeat against Argentina [in the final] seemed to lay bare exactly where Bolsonaro’s authoritarian populism has led us: a small team, with no soul or luster, playing in a Copa America of death, in a tournament nobody wanted to host, put on in a rush in a sad and dying country. It’s not by chance that Neymar, the biggest idol of his generation, is a Bolsonaro supporter. 

Tepper: Your new book, Sevastopol, is a collection of three long stories, each very different on the surface. What are the connecting threads that bring them together as a whole? 

Fraia: This is a book made up of three stories, to be read as a collection. But it is also a book with a certain atmosphere, themes, and images that run throughout. I’d like the stories to function like images in a poem. Or as if three distinct objects were placed side by side. They are different, but together they seem to form something—a frame, a path, a pattern. As if beyond the voice narrating each of the stories there were something subjective, blurry, creating an effect. A feeling of difference (after all, the stories are independent) but also of closeness (a common tone, a sense of progression, a kind of recurring syntax and vocabulary). For example, in the book there’s always a person telling, imagining, remembering. And the story that’s told, imagined, invented takes the lead and winds up acting as a kind of commentary on the main story—and on the book as well. 

Tepper: How were you influenced by Tolstoy’s The Sevastopol Sketches (1855)? 

Fraia: The stories in the book are named after months of the year—“August,” “December,” and “May”—and this relates to Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches, which is also made up of three parts: “Sevastopol in December,” “Sevastopol in May,” and “Sevastopol in August 1855.” And although Sevastopol has absolutely nothing to do with any historical work—it’s not a book about war, it doesn’t portray any trenches—there is an atmosphere of conflict and defeat hanging over everything. I really like this one line from The Sevastopol Sketches: “All along, the fighting had worn on in a kind of shadow and unconsciousness, to such a degree that everything that happened seemed to them to have happened elsewhere, at another time, and with other people.” This hallucinatory aspect, this movement of experiences, relates to Sevastopol as well. 

Tepper: In an interview with the New Yorker, you talked about other writers who have also had an impact on you—Chekhov, Sebald, Bolaño, Alejandro Zambra, Valeria Luiselli, to name a few. Tell me more about the range of your literary interests and who you’re reading now. 

Fraia: I was recently blown away by Pond, the debut novel by English writer Claire-Louise Bennett; The Years, by Annie Ernaux; and Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami. I read Optic Nerve, by María Gainza, and really liked it. Panza de burro, by Andrea Abreu, an author from the Canary Islands, is great. So is Feebleminded, by Ariana Harwicz, and Mona, by Pola Oloixarac. I’m anxiously awaiting the new novel by Antônio Xerxenesky, An Infinite Sadness—he’s a Brazilian author who is strangely still unpublished in English. Another young Brazilian writer, Clara Drummond, has just written a great novel, Role Play, that will be published next year. I like Natalia Ginzburg, Yasunari Kawabata, Antonio Tabucchi, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Juan Carlos Onetti, Enrique Vila-Matas, Mario Bellatin, Witold Gombrowicz. 

Tepper: One recurring motif in Sevastopol is the existence of stories within stories. In “December,” Lena, whose life has been re-created in a film, explains: “I did what people do all the time. Tell stories, retell them, freeze them in time, try to make sense of them.” Were you especially interested in the idea of how stories are told and by whom? 

Fraia: We can learn about the characters’ individual plights—and move a plot forward—in the ways they relate to the stories they hear, invent, or imagine. In the first story, what we know about Lena comes from a kind of narrative short circuit: all of a sudden, there’s a story taking the place of her own story. And we don’t really know which story is her life story, we don’t know who she really is. But, at the end of the day, is anybody anything more than the stories they see and create? 

In the second story, there’s one character, Adán, who tells a story, and another character, Nilo, who listens. To what extent might the story being told be more about the listener than the storyteller? 

Finally, in the third one, Klaus pursues the life of a Russian painter who lived during the Crimean War, and Nadia is writing about the ups and downs of a man and a woman. These are made-up stories that say a lot about Klaus and Nadia. In the stories written and rewritten by Nadia, she inhabits her own tales, but in an encrypted way, as in a dream. In good fiction, the things that are most important are never said, because they are impossible to say. Words never touch the places where secrets are buried. So the truth can only come out through its transformation into something else. Truth in fiction is this kind of alchemy. 

Tepper: A version of the second story, “May,” was originally published in Granta’s Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue. What was the effect of appearing in that issue on you as a young writer? 

Fraia: Yes, an initial version of that story was published in Granta. But I wasn’t happy with it. A critic at the time said, “This goes from nothing to nowhere,” and he was right. But I liked some elements of the story, a particular atmosphere, so I decided to rework it, take other paths, sticking with what I liked—and make the story go from nothing to nowhere in a better way. I don’t know if I was successful. With selected texts, like in Granta, there’s often a logic or rationale that governs what gets published or not. And the world that this logic is responding to is a world of realistic narratives or ones based on real stories, with well-constructed characters—the literary tradition of the Anglo-Saxon market. It was a moment when this sort of writing was well received among young Brazilian writers: finally, a generation that knows how to write realistic plots and psychologically believable characters! 

But I’m not really sure these are qualities to be celebrated without a critical eye. I think it’s important to try to expand what is sought as a way of narrating, experimenting, trying to connect with what Kafka called the “dreamlike inner life.” Because this is a trap of Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism: foreigners are often incorporated into the hegemonic language (and the market it represents) as nothing more than an accent, as local color or exoticism, enriching it on the surface. Anything outside of that is pejoratively deemed “experimental” or “cerebral.” And so we all—whether we're Brazilian, Chinese, Nigerian, Hungarian—start to write in the same language. There are Brazilian authors who sound like translations of US authors, for example—their syntax, the way they build characters, move the story forward. But I think things are changing, I think now we’re more aware of this kind of thing. 

Tepper: I’m curious about your work as an editor at one of Brazil’s major publishing houses, Companhia das Letras. Tell me more about the kind of projects you work on and how you balance your creative life as editor and writer. 

Fraia: I work as a literary fiction editor, mainly with Latin American and Brazilian authors, as well as some European and US ones. We just published the first edition in Brazil to include Julio Cortázar’s complete short stories, which made me very happy. I’ve edited authors such as Mario Levrero, Silvina Ocampo, Enrique Vila-Matas, Don DeLillo, George Orwell, Alan Pauls, Roberto Bolaño, Natalia Ginzburg, Regina Porter, among many others. It really is a tricky balancing act. Apart from just general lack of time, the way an editor reads is very different from the way a writer reads. But they’re pursuits that can enrich each other, and in the end, I think I’m fortunate to be able to observe writing from these two positions. 

Tepper: What is your general sense of the literary landscape in Brazil today? Are there ways in which Brazilian writing has changed in the decade since the Granta issue? 

Fraia: It’s changed a lot. It’s a much more varied landscape these days. Right now is an especially good moment. Excellent authors are emerging, and writers born in the 1970s and 1980s are publishing their best books. If I were an American editor today, I would definitely have my eye on Brazil.

domingo, 5 de março de 2023

a bit gloomy, desolate, styled in a color palette that includes grays, greens, and violets

Texto da Melanie Broder na Public Books sobre o Sebastopol.
“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. 

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. 

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.

segunda-feira, 8 de agosto de 2022

onetti, mergulhador

Ensaio publicado na The Paris Review. Sobre Juan Carlos Onetti, Michel Leiris, mergulho, Ubatuba e vida submarina. Tradução da Zoë Perry.

I first read the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti in December 2007, when I spent three weeks in the hospital due to an appendectomy gone wrong. Between doses of antibiotics, I asked my father to bring me a book that had just been published, of Onetti’s complete short stories. Before long, I came to one entitled “Convalescence,” which seemed appropriate given my situation. A woman is recovering from an illness in a hotel by the sea. Onetti doesn’t tell us what the illness is. A man keeps calling her on the phone, making threats, insisting she return to the city. I knew it might not be the best idea to read Onetti while laid up in a hospital bed—he’s not exactly the most upbeat writer. But the feeling that came over me as I turned the pages was one of joy.

Back then, I used to go on diving trips with a couple of friends. I was really into it—getting away from São Paulo and heading down to Ubatuba or some other town on the coast, spending the weekend in the water, going out at night to drink acai juice and chat in a sandwich shop or some beach bar, wondering what the next day’s adventures had in store. As my friends exchanged long emails, hammering out the details for their next so-called expedition, like a pair of Jacques Cousteaus setting sail on those windy, unpredictable mornings in the silvery sunshine of our little patch of lush South American coastline, a nurse was changing the dressings on my right abdomen and adjusting the IV in my arm.

I had had two general anesthesias, an infection, two operations. Throughout my entire recovery, I kept reading Onetti. Rather than revolving around a desire to pick apart and reconstruct meaning, these stories seemed to be aimed at revealing something else. It was as if Onetti were saying to me, It’s impossible to have access to everything, a narrator may actually exist to throw us off, and there’s always something we can’t see.

Soon, I had a favorite: “Esbjerg by the Sea.” The narrator situates the reader right off the bat: a couple, Kirsten and Montes, walks along the docks of Buenos Aires and watches the ships depart. The narrator claims to have heard the story, “without understanding it,” one morning when Montes showed up, humiliated, and confessed to stealing from the narrator. At the narrator’s office, Montes, “a pathetic man, a bad friend, a bastard,” explained that he’d concealed a series of bets, planning to cover them himself, so that he could raise money for Kirsten to travel to her native country, Denmark. But his plan didn’t work, and now he was unable to pay back what he’d lost.

“I think he told me the story,” the narrator says, “or almost all of it, that first day, Monday, when he came to see me, cowering like a dog, his face green, revolting, cold sweat shining on his forehead and down the sides of his nose.” More than just signaling the narrator’s one-sided perspective—“I heard the story, without understanding it”; “I think he told me the story, or almost all of it”—Onetti makes this lack of transparency, and everything the reader can’t see or understand, the secret theme of the story.

Esbjerg is a seaport town in Denmark. In the story, it’s presented as an obscure place. Kirsten is always miserable, but she won’t say why. She fills the house with photographs of her home country, landscapes with cows and mountains. One day, letters start to arrive from Denmark. Montes doesn’t understand a word of them, and Kirsten says that “she’d written to some distant relatives and these were their replies, though the news wasn’t very good.” There’s a sentence, in Danish, that Kirsten keeps repeating, and this is what impacts Montes the most. He doesn’t understand those words (neither does the reader), but something in Kirsten’s voice makes him want to cry. “It must have been, I think, because the sentence he couldn’t understand was the most remote, most foreign, and it came from the part of her he didn’t know,” the narrator speculates.

After Montes’s plan goes awry, Kirsten begins leaving the house constantly, never saying a word. One day, Montes follows her. Kirsten goes to the port, where she stands for hours, stiff, looking out over the water. The story ends with Kirsten and Montes, side by side, watching the ships depart, “each with his or her own hidden and distinctive thoughts”: a feeling that “each is alone, which always turns out to be surprising when we stop to think about it.”

In the end, the couple’s story hangs like a veil of murky water between us and the narrator, someone who ultimately just makes everything more unclear. What sets in is a feeling of being at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by schooling fish, octopuses parading their tentacles in the dark, and Onetti saying, You’ll have to excuse me, but you won’t be able to see much here, even up close it will be impossible to make out much of anything besides the uncertainty of another’s thoughts, and you won’t get any satisfactory answers.

“When moving, use extra care not to disturb the sediment” is one of the commandments of sport diving on shipwrecks. If a diver’s fin grazes any surface of the boat, it will stir up silt, muddying the water. The same goes for cave diving. Visibility can be reduced to almost zero, so you have to use ropes and cables and be prepared to make a blind ascent. In the Coral Sea, off the coast of Australia, it’s the opposite: the waters there are some of the most crystal clear in the world. Sixty meters of visibility, lending an illusion of total control over your surroundings.

What governs visibility underwater is a concept in physics known as opacity, the measure of how penetrable or impenetrable a given medium is to a wave, electromagnetic or otherwise. For example, an opaque medium doesn’t allow light to pass directly through it; it absorbs, refracts, or reflects. Consequently, the intensity of the beam of light is reduced, and it fails to reach the other side. On Ilha das Palmas, an island south of Ubatuba, underwater visibility is about eight meters, and the seabed is rocky. Thanks to ocean currents, the area is frequently visited by a variety of fish: moray eels, parrotfish, starfish, and sand dollars. That was where we used to go, dreaming of the Coral Sea or the Andros Barrier in the Bahamas, where we’d finally be able to see everything.

I encountered this hope for seeing things clearly in the work of the French surrealist Michel Leiris, whom I’d also started reading at that time. Compared with Onetti, Leiris was a much different diving instructor, so to speak. Leiris promised so much more, with the confidence of someone who’d take us to see reef sharks and dolphins swimming in infinite blue waters. Leiris, who was Onetti’s contemporary, said that literary activity’s “only justification is to illuminate certain matters for oneself at the same time as one makes them communicable to others.” In the essay “De la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie” (“Literature Considered as a Bullfight”), a sort of introduction to his confessional autobiography, he wrote that he “intended to elucidate certain still obscure things for which psychoanalysis had attracted my attention when I experienced it as a patient.”

Words like illuminate, communicate, and elucidate gave an idea of how Leiris’s thought interacted with his language (clear, not overdone, ostensibly nonliterary). But while Leiris had wanted to “elucidate,” the interaction between Onetti’s ideas and his language (murky, disjointed, nonlinear) produced an altogether different effect: the search for answers or clarification didn’t exist. The stories I was discovering from my hospital bed seemed to lead the characters (and the reader) into even greater darkness. We could think about our world, a world of shipwrecks and wasted dreams, where visibility, for the most part, was brutally low. And how might we give shape to this world? How much could we really know someone or even ourselves? How might we dive into those murky waters, more saturated with sediment by the day, and communicate this state?

My friends kept exchanging emails, listing dream destinations, equipment, water conditions. It’s important to note that opacity is not absolute—that is, what is opaque for some wave frequencies can be translucent for others. There’s a kind of glass that is transparent to normal light waves (you can see through it) but completely opaque to ultraviolet waves (the ones that burn your skin on a beach in the Bahamas or the Australian Coral Sea). Generally speaking, this has to do with the interaction between the frequency of the medium and the frequency of the wave that’s trying to travel through it. Depending on the degree of syntony between these frequencies, the wave will either pass through or be stopped in its tracks.

One of Leiris’s mantras is to “reject all fable” and “admit as materials only actual facts, and not only probable facts, as in the classical novel.” Leiris wanted to set in motion a kind of realism that was “not feigned, as in most novels,” but made up of “things experienced and presented without the least disguise.” In some way, this felt connected to another world, one that would show itself more and more over the coming years: autofiction, stories where the use of real or biographical events was a value in its own right, an interest in private life, diaries on public display, confessional storytelling, Instagram stories, our painstakingly psychoanalyzed life (the epic of subjectivity), the assumption that there’s a correlation between our perception of the world (“our truths”) and the world itself, the desire to “make clear,” to understand oneself, to see how things “really” are; the belief in the illusion of transparency—when we go to update our Facebook status, the little box prompts us to share, asking, “What’s on your mind?”.

While there may be many paths that lead us to transparency (a watering down of Leiris’s confident gesture), Onetti is a kind of Zen master of opacity, a diving instructor who takes us to spots where we can see very little. His own image reinforces this: lying in bed, smoking, scribbling on bits of paper, bedsheets reeking of gin. In Onetti, the entrance to this murky-watered world isn’t through the fantastic or the magical, like some of his Latin American contemporaries. Or at least, not only that. His most unforgettable and sorrowful stories—“A Dream Come True,” “Most Dreaded Hell,” “The Face of Disgrace”—are realist narratives that seem to crush the modern hope of seeing everything. There’s a play between the affirmation and negation of reality—a subterranean current that seems to connect his work to Bolaño’s short stories. This is mainly because in Onetti’s stories, these mechanisms of memory, invention, and partial ignorance are contained within what is being told.

When we read, we’re often looking for things to be made clear. We want that beam of light to reach the other side. We want to see and to understand, both of which give us an unmistakable feeling of comfort and happiness. This is what makes us forge ahead in a novel: the search for a reason, a rationale, a purpose. Life, in general, also works like this. But inevitably, there are things we can’t see. All along the way are blind spots, hazards, twists and turns. Like those mornings and afternoons spent diving—when we were immeasurably happy and then all of a sudden, out of the darkness, came some staggering revelation—everything happens somewhere between opacity and transparency. We can compare and contrast these categories for all practical purposes, but the truth is that one does not exist against the other; unbeknownst to us, they’ve been coexisting the whole time. It may seem paradoxical, but Onetti, despite the blurred timelines of his stories—or perhaps because of them—is a transparent writer. 

He is transparent in his endeavors to produce opacity. His writing lets us see precisely what we cannot.


Emilio Fraia was born in São Paulo in 1982. His English-language debut, Sevastopol, translated by Zoë Perry, was recently published by New Directions in the U.S. and Lolli Editions in the UK. Fraia was named one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Writers. In English his fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Grand Journal, and Two Lines 19: Passageways.

Zoë Perry’s translations of contemporary Brazilian literature have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Words without Borders, and The White Review. She is a founding member of the Starling Bureau, a literary translators’ collective, and was selected for a Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency for her translation of Emilio Fraia’s Sevastopol.

All Juan Carlo Onetti quotations from A Dream Come True: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver and published by Archipelago Books. 

sexta-feira, 3 de junho de 2022

sevastopol (4)


Este mês, na Noruega, pela Solum Bokvennen.

segunda-feira, 29 de novembro de 2021

vírgula, uma controvérsia

Na World Literature Today, escrevi sobre a vírgula: "For linguist and Columbia University professor, John McWhorter, the comma is becoming redundant in the digital age. According to him, we could take commas out most of the texts we read “and would probably suffer so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all”. But it’s not just the internet that agrees with McWhorter; Gertrude Stein considered commas “servile and with no life of their own”, and the Fowler brothers noted in their 1906 book The King's English: “Anyone who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable, and question his conscience, as severely as we ought to do about disagreeable conduct in real life.” A few years ago, British writer and essayist Pico Iyer came to the rescue of the aforementioned punctuation mark—which, according to scholars, appears in texts at least three times more often than the period, and five times more often than the semicolon. In an interview, Iyer said that contrary to what Professor McWhorter says, we need commas now more than ever: “precisely because punctuation is falling out of our text messages and e-mails, and because we are more in need of a pause than ever before”. According to Iyer, part of the beauty of the comma is that it offers us a break. Without the comma, he muses, “we will lose all music, nuance and subtlety in communication and end up shouting at one another block capitals.” Discussing commas stirs up tempers and, since the time of Saint Jerome—who in the 5th century AD devised the first system of dividing up texts, per cola et commata—sets us before our most intimate pauses and hesitations. Saramago would not be possible without the comma. New Yorker founder Harold Ross put a comma in the line “After dinner, the men went into the living-room” so that the men could have time to push back their chairs, stand up, and then head to the living room. And the sad irony of the opening sentence of Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee, and its cold, guarded, emotionally distant protagonist, wouldn’t exist if not for the comma: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” In 2001, Pico Iyer wrote an article for Time magazine in which he claimed discussing commas is like discussing love: “in love the smallest things matter desperately, which is why lovers pay such attention to the tiniest marks on the page,” he says. “And no one scans a letter so closely as a lover, searching for its small print, straining to hear its nuances, its gasps, its sighs and hesitations, poring over the secret messages that lie in every cadence.” There is a scene in Spike Jonze's film Her about love and commas. The story takes place sometime in the future, when Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with an operating system, Samantha (played by Scarlett Johansson, in a husky, sensual voice). In the scene, the couple argue, and during the fight, Theodore angrily asks his robot girlfriend why she sighed while she was speaking. “Why do you do that? It’s not like you need oxygen or anything.” Apropos the comma, in 1879 Oscar Wilde wrote in his diary: “In the morning I took out a comma, but on mature reflection, I put it back again”."

segunda-feira, 8 de novembro de 2021


Erin Bloom sobre o Sevastopol, na Full Stop Magazine.

“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.

terça-feira, 19 de outubro de 2021

um tapete

"Outro dia, lembrei-me de uma vez em que você veio aqui e, logo que chegou, pôs-se a vasculhar todos os armários à procura de um tapete sardo que queria pendurar na parede do seu porão. Deve ter sido a última vez que o vi. Eu estava nesta casa havia poucos dias. Era novembro. Você zanzava pelos aposentos e vasculhava todos os armários, que tinham acabado de montar, e eu andava atrás de você, me queixando de que você sempre levava embora os meus objetos. Você deve ter encontrado o tal tapete sardo, porque aqui ele não está. Também não estava no porão. De qualquer modo, pouco me importa aquele tapete, como pouco me importava na época. Lembro-me dele talvez por estar ligado à última vez em que o vi. Lembro que, ao ficar brava e protestar com você, senti uma grande alegria. Sabia que meus protestos suscitariam em você um misto de alegria e aborrecimento. 

Penso agora que esse era um dia feliz. Mas, infelizmente, é raro reconhecer os momentos felizes enquanto estamos passando por eles. Nós os reconhecemos, em geral, só à distância. Para mim a felicidade estava em protestar e para você em vasculhar os meus armários. Também devo dizer que perdemos naquele dia um tempo precioso. Poderíamos nos ter sentado e interrogado reciprocamente sobre coisas essenciais. É provável que seríamos menos felizes, ou melhor, seríamos talvez muito infelizes. Porém, eu agora lembrarei esse dia não como um vago dia feliz, e sim como um dia verdadeiro e essencial para mim e para você, destinado a iluminar a sua e a minha pessoa, que sempre trocaram palavras de natureza inferior, jamais palavras claras e necessárias, ao contrário, palavras cinzentas, gentis, flutuantes e inúteis."

Caro Michele, Natalia Ginzburg, trad. Homero Freitas de Andrade 

sábado, 7 de agosto de 2021

sevastopol (3)


Em novembro, na Suécia, pela Bokförlaget Tranan.