Compotes, madeleines, almond cakes. Mashed potatoes for her, steak frites for him: such is the haute cuisine of the 500 miles of the autoroute, from the southern edge of Paris to the coastal Mediterranean town of Marseilles, via sixty-five or so rest stops, where our intrepid guides dock their “dragon,” a red Volkswagen camper van christened Fafner. It proves an apt companion and vessel for Julio Cortázar and his third wife, the writer and photographer Carol Dunlop, on the five-week trek the two undertook in the spring of 1982 to ponder the depths of their four-year relationship. An illness would claim Dunlop’s life before the mock-heroic account of her and Cortázar’s journey, Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, appeared in 1983.
The means: abandon themselves to the autoroute, pledging never to leave its confines, stopping at a clip of two rest stops a day, spending the night in the second and blissfully dozing in Fafner. Record observations on the local flora and fauna; chronicle the condition of water closets, as regards to their cleanliness and accessibility; ponder one’s sleeping lover; chat up suspicious work crews; stare down death; laugh and live; and produce an account of the journey packed with prose, poetry, line drawings, photographs and photocopies.
“I’ll never know how I brought three cassettes of Fats Waller and only one of Ellington and one of Armstrong,” wonders Cortázar toward the end of the trip. This is the contemplative life as road movie, where details one might consider trivial–like forgetting the Lester Young but loading up on the Mingus–convey how its narrators function at their core, what it is, specifically, that makes them them: the unabashed affection for the romantic piano lick, the fondness for some other artist’s zealous bluster. But as you learn–about four pages in, when the first full-body laugh hits you–one mustn’t forget the piss and vinegar when taking to the road. Ne’er-do-welling is a right blast when you’re impersonating classic heroic archetypes, like you’re Zorro and Buster Keaton and Lancelot and, why not, Hector, and Hoss from Bonanza all at once. Some lines borrowed from Jean Charcot, polar explorer extraordinaire, introduce the tone that our boon caravaners will carry through the first two-thirds of their book:
Pierre, our alpine guide,
who has recovered from his terrible nausea
and has gone back to writing
his memoirs, comes to ask me
to lend him “that which pushes the words
away.” It takes me a while to
realize that he’s talking about
That which pushes the words away: words as physical things, which encroach upon moods, shaping and deflecting them by dint of their presence. As a sickly child in Argentina, Cortázar felt their bulk while convalescing in bed and reading books selected by his mother; traversing a wide range of subjects, he realized that narrative–and its possibilities–could be blissfully open-ended, unabashedly defiant of the standard fictional end lines of denouement and conclusion.
The traditions of Spanish magic realism could hardly hold Cortázar’s interest during the ’60s, when he wrote Hopscotch–the novel as choose-your-own-adventure book–and 62: A Model Kit, a prefab fictional creation for the reader to assemble as he saw fit. In each book you can jump from one chapter to another six chapters off, take this path instead of that one, and in 62 break bread with two prankster roués–Calac and Polanco–who also dart in and out of Autonauts, where they claim to be kind protectors of our not-so-streetwise travelers while forever cadging drinks and wolfing down provisions.