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Arguably, reading literature in translation can be compared to a leap of faith. Faith in the skilled voice and resources of the translator, faith in the power of the narrative to work its spell independently of the linguistic code it is set to traverse. Ultimately, faith in language itself to create for us a world we can inhabit, for as long as the reading experience lasts.

Cars on Fire, in Robin Myers’ eloquent English-language rendition, provides just that. Through a succession of 18 stories written originally in Spanish by Mónica-Ramón Ríos, we are allowed into an uncertain space that is both alluring and unsettling. It questions our sense of the immovable nature of the self, uncovers the precariousness fabric of identity and the complex, double-edged power and frailty of human connections. The stories take us from dimly illuminated, expertly crafted internal scenarios to profoundly contemporary urban landscapes in New York and Santiago, where characters roam as if in a state of articulate lucid dreaming.

The question of identity appears as a viable thread connecting the stories in the collection. Most notably, however, it does not come in the shape of now almost obligatory formulations posed by ethnicity, gender, stereotype or misrepresentation. Rather, the narrative seems to turn its inquisitive eye to the more existential plane of discussion, the quintessential human dramas: the fleeting nature of existence, the struggle for the construction of the self.

In “The Writer,” we are subtly exposed to the frailty of identity. Like a distorted mirror image, a writer un-empathetically narrates the last days in the life of another writer, who remains nameless throughout the story and ominously referred to as The Writer. However, far more interesting than what may superficially seem simply an invitation to reflect on the brevity of existence, is the trick played on the reader by placing two mirrors facing each other. The title of the story becomes a question, a confrontation almost: if there is more than one, who really is the writer? Here is where we begin to suspect that this shifting focus, this inability of terms to rest on a single, unmovable point of reference is perhaps a central aspect of the proposed world of Cars on Fire.

Akin to this effect, is the sense of impending dissolution produced by the story titled “The Object.” We follow the narrator on a subway ride from Brooklyn to an indie bookstore in upper Manhattan, to attend the book launch of a prestigious author. The protagonist accidentally leaves behind a book on the subway seat: a simple event that carries the symbolic weight of seemingly random details found in dreams.

The doors snap shut and I realize I’ve left my book on the seat, the one by Jose Emilio Recabarren I’d checked out of the library. Accepting the loss, I make my way towards the object. (119)

The sense of loss permeates the atmosphere, not only on the most obvious of levels —the protagonist just lost her book— but through a deeper, more subterranean mechanism: again, by means of the title (initially) and now explicitly in the text, the narrator has promised us an object, not just any object, the object. However, she will move on to present several objects before our eyes, all of which evaporate one after the other, all of them unable to fulfill the promise of a reliable, unique target where our attention can rest: the second layer in the construction of mutability and loss. The bolded emphasis is mine.

I pick up an object I think Carlos would find interesting and examine it carefully. (119)

Standing at the end of the aisle, I see an old armchair positioned in the middle of the makeshift stage, clearly chosen to grant the venue a literary air. The armchair is the object, I hear one of the macabre old men say as they chatter edgily and tilt their heads toward the back of the space. (120)

The man with the white hair, vampiric skin and a raspy voice requests once again that we advance toward the object. I am the object, he says. (120)

As the story progresses, each object dissolving into another, we understand we have slipped  into an uncertain terrain where the promised land of absolute categories that would somehow explain the world, loses ground beneath our feet. By virtue of the inextricable relationship between subject and object, the essential, larger question of subjective identity also comes into question.

The movie theaters fill with local audiences speaking languages that smudge and mix together, identities grow liquid and numerous. The streets throng and people follow other logics to understand that the New York we’re all leaving behind is not the object anymore. (123)

Perhaps one of several triumphs of technique, in the short stories collected throughout Cars on Fire, is the ability to address these issues organically without disrupting the flow of the narrative or resorting to common place formulations.

Set in residential Santiago, “The Ghost” follows the narrator as she recollects her encounters with an estranged lover from her adolescence and her group of intellectuals and psychology students. The tone is intimate and the story is interspersed with fictional notes taken from psychology books. And so, “The Ghost” is also a reflection on memory, our perception of others, and again, our perception of ourselves.

I can still see him stepping barefoot along the rocky shore and into the lake, blue trunks, long hair, a bandanna of the same color dropping to the ground. He wore it like Axl Rose even after we’d forgotten the singer and his leather jacket with no T-shirt underneath. The same skinniness, the same femininity. I was so young that I mistook his affectation for rigor. When I saw him, fifteen years later sitting in an easy chair with a haircut, underlining psychology books as if they very act of reading could construct a world he’d lost in every glimmer of sunlight, I could see how fragile he was. I didn’t recognize myself. (37)

The final phrase of the passage does not seem incidental: “I didn’t recognize myself.” The fact that it is herself she doesn’t recognize, not the other, speaks to the underlying mechanism of projection, and can be construed as commentary on how the perception of others contributes to the construction of our own self. We are led to wonder: Who is this ghost? The mere remembrance of a past lover, or the almost unrecognizable mirrored reflection of a past self? Identity in this regard, becomes again a disquieting territory in a constant state of transformation.

It is perhaps in the story that lends its name to the collection, “Cars on Fire,” that many of these elements come together in full force. Our protagonist, a struggling  grad student working towards his dissertation thesis is haunted by loneliness, the phantasmagorical figure of his father and the painful unlikelihood of a romantic connection.

As before, the recourse to the internal voice of the narrator is evocative of the atmosphere of dreams. The internal dialogue of the main character bears such weight against the “real world” even in his interactions with others– that he seems to move in a world inhabited by ghosts or to dwell exclusively in his own interior world, the presence of others a sort of mirage, or a projection of his own psyche.

At night, this-guy, this lost soul, this animal in heat, dreams he is carrying on a conversation with his neighbor in which she argues that writing a dissertation could become a method of automatic writing, as practiced by the surrealists and other artists obsessed with the subconscious (…) In the dream, the neighbor explains her theory by sketching a brain with blue pen. This guy feels the pressure against his temples. (70)

The question of the elusive, ever-changing, endlessly fluid nature of identity is brought into focus on a language level, as our protagonist is successively characterized by multiple epithets, almost every time the narrator summons his presence, and sometimes that of his neighbor, on the page:

… this-guy—he of the millenary void(78)

… the neighbor, not taking this-guy – strapped, fetishistic, calculating— very seriously…(80)

… this-guy – stranger to himself—…(85)

… the coffee-cup neighbor waves at him and gestures towards the street…(83)

… this-guy  – fractured soul, irreparable solitude talks with the books-in-the backpack neighbor–…(90)

Adding to the oneiric quality of the scenes is the synecdochical nature of the characterizations, where subjects tend to metamorphose and become disfigured, as their identities are represented by a single feature that suddenly takes over.

As is the case with all true quality translation, the English text dares to speak in a poetic voice. It is brave enough to stand on its own feet and ostensibly performs its own interplay of rhythm and musicality as effortlessly as original language fiction does, or should.

Overall, Cars on Fire can be read as a forceful invitation to confront the inevitability of change and the proverbial longing for meaning, but while this is no small accomplishment, perhaps the true wonder underlying the stories is the artful way in which the devasted scenario of post-modern fragmentation, loss and dissolution, almost imperceptibly but without question, also becomes a stage for reinvention and endless, wild, explosive, possibility.  

Originally published in Reading in Translation, check it out!


In Memory of Memory, Maria Stepanova