Car Talk

Car Talk

A mock-heroic travelogue by Julio Cortázar and his wife captures the contemplative life on the road.


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
an eraser.

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.

Cortázar’s creation in Hopscotch of a fiction that encourages readers to leap and roll back and forth from one point in a story to another has prompted some critics to classify the novel as a hypertext avant la lettre. Perhaps. There’s also a more pedestrian explanation for Cortázar’s method: his peripatetic life. Born in Belgium, he grew up in Argentina and ultimately settled in France. The notion of “home” in his fictions is one of movement: what the head holds the head travels with, and it is in that region, of cognition, that the individual finds his terra firma. Or you can listen to the characters of Calac and Polanco, having come upon Fafner, making their way out of a past book and into the one at hand:

Since it’s been days since their last appearance I feel obliged to ask them where they’ve left their car.
 ”Car,” says Calac, looking at Polanco as if he needed to visually lean on him so as not to tumble to the ground. “Hear what he asks me?”
 ”The freeway is generally reserved for cars,” I point out in justification.
 ”For the cars of the rich,” says Polanco with the voice I imagine Karl Marx would use to say the same thing. “We poets live on moon beams and water, which is free in these places fortunately.”
 ”Salami is fuel as well,” says Carol who has far less patience with them than I do, which I understand perfectly and which they return with silent hostile glances.

A cloud of dust, and the interlopers blur into the backdrop of the rest stop left behind.

“Fooooking croissant,” screams Jamie T., English soulster/faux hip-hopster on “Brand New Bass Guitar” on his recent debut Panic Prevention, something that reminds me that a spirit–a joy, a rascally inclination, a playful soul–can inhabit virtually limitless forms. You can find the same energy in Don Quixote, in a midshipman’s tales of life in Nelson’s navy, in a punk rock chorus, in Cortázar’s 1960s novels, in a Jamie T. song that plays out over the credits of Entourage, in a look you imagine a bird or a squirrel is giving you at a rest stop outside Avignon.

It’s a sustaining energy, really, and it’s rather the point of Autonauts of the Cosmoroute. Some will view the book as Cortázar-lite, the mailed-in travelogue that is far less bold with form than the efforts on which his reputation rests. But this is a work of that tearaway spirit nonetheless. Cortázar and Dunlop would’ve laughed their asses off over a man shouting oaths at pastries, just as surely as they must have when they wrote this:

Reading these pages,
has it not occurred to you,
at least once, oh complicit
and patient reader, to wonder whether
we haven’t been hidden in some
hotel room in la Villette since
the 23rd of May?

Actually, it had. Then one blinks the thought away. And returns to some glade–these rest stops prove remarkably pastoral–with the sense that no one has invented anything here, save various relief maps of the mind the reader may use to navigate his way beyond all doubts that a child’s innocence can be found anywhere in the adult world.

Both Cortázar–who is responsible for the bulk of the text–and Dunlop were noted cinephiles, fans of a medium that, more than most, gives itself over to the shadow play of illusion and reality. Human forms, generated by spectral beams. And human desires, evinced in dark rooms, where corporeal humans do not speak to each other. The challenge then becomes to bridge the distance between the human representatives on the screen and their counterparts in the seats. The authors of Autonauts have a similar burden in having created a work that is spectral in its shape-shifting: you could view it as a travelogue with special interest for the gourmand, in the tradition of Bernard Clayton’s The Breads of France, part recipe book, part scenic narrative; a screenplay for a long-lost Jean Vigo project Godard had been hot to try his hand at; a filmic symposium on love, like Two for the Road, the classic lover’s getaway film; or a novelist’s journal, with another writer’s philosophical musings jammed inside.

There is lots of sex, though seekers of nuts-and-bolts accounts of members and orifices are bound to be disappointed, for this is sex as a larger concept: as one human consuming and being consumed by another. A time-honored method of gap-bridging, with a cinematic dichotomy: tangible flesh and the mind’s desires, now come together in the dark room of a VW camper van outfitted with window shades.

“We embrace forever until we can’t breathe,” Dunlop writes, “looking for a breath, you plunging without disappearing from where you are, your eyes on me and in front of where the gaze has turned into a reflection of two, a thousand gazes, and you breathe me.” Dunlop has it pretty well nailed there: sex as life, mirroring death in its contortions and spastics, without ever dissolving into blackness. (Would that Dunlop’s writing was always this incisive.) Cortázar picks up on the theme; the contractions of orgasm are compared with the body’s final, earthly spasms–the death lurch that we associate with stagy melodramas when the villain is pierced through the heart. Life is a passage, death is a passage, and in the most intense situations they share the same mannerisms; for Cortázar and Dunlop, understanding what animates the one is the only hope for beginning to understand the other. In such avowals, humor, mostly a constant of Autonauts, has a way of departing its pages like a Dionysus who would rather be anywhere else, perhaps in the company of Calac and Polanco, who, just like that, tend to come shambling up once more, castoffs from a Spanish Withnail and I, demanding their booze.

When death’s shadow begins to hover over Autonauts of the Cosmoroute in its final third, human vanity (for there is always something vain about comedy; it’s not as though making another person laugh is a selfless gesture) gives way to absolute nakedness, the soul revealed without protective covering. Cortázar and Dunlop had been sick, and he would die fifteen months after her. And we–gentle readers–become the spectators watching everything play out on the big screen of the page. And inside the abyss as well, positioned upon the little path that leads, briefly, out of it, before re-commencing with the descent:

The world, after all, is full of rest areas where perhaps await dreams of such richness that they’ll be worth all the outbound journeys and, one of these days, even a journey of no return.

Words prompted, perhaps, by a shared look about a rank water closet a few miles back, the traveler’s knack for observation giving way to a haunting symbolism.

But parks and rest stops offer their accouterments nonetheless, as do the scenes that sometimes play out behind even the most vile of water closets. In those moments, the piquant and the ever so exquisitely painful come together as one, as when death tries to wrest from life what literature will always hold. Gratification, with a slight misalignment, that ambles forth regardless.

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