Feb/Mar 2008

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: A Timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseille

Jason Weiss


In May 1982, the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar and his third wife, Carol Dunlop, embarked on a curious expedition. With their trusty VW camper van, dubbed Fafner after Wagner’s dragon, they set out to drive from Paris to Marseille, intending to discover the other thruway, the parallel path hidden in plain sight, along the autoroute. The better to gain access to that imagined place, the couple established some rules: They would not once leave the highway; they would explore each rest stop, at a rate of two a day; they would take detailed notes on their findings; and, like Marco Polo, they would write a book on their journey as they went.

The trip to Marseille is normally a day’s drive, but with sixty-five rest stops, they passed an entire month on their voyage. By traveling at a medieval pacedriving between stops took barely ten minutes—Cortázar and Dunlop entered a different rhythm from which to view the life teeming around them, outside the ordinary time of headlong destinations. Their plan, in its faithful execution, resembled the notion of the fantastic that informs Cortázar’s many stories: a realm accessible at any moment under the right conditions. Such was the ephemeral city that formed anew each night, at the larger rest areas among truckers from far and wide.

Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: A Timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseille—the last book published in Cortázar’s lifetime, it appeared in Spanish in 1983 and is now available in a fluid and felicitous English translation by Anne McLean—figures among his most playful works, its tone recalling, in a lighter vein, travelers’ tales from the age of discovery. Simultaneously, it offers another take on the collage aesthetic that underlies his novels and kaleidoscopic multigenre books, such as Around the Day in Eighty Worlds (1967). After an extended preamble, which introduces the expedition’s protagonists, genesis, and preparations, the record itself comprises a daily log, photos, hand-drawn maps of the rest areas, and the authors’ many commentaries. In these, Cortázar and Dunlop dwell on physical surroundings, metaphysical speculations, cultural reflections, and encounters with truckers, highway workers, and other travelers, as well as observations of each other’s habits; they remark, too, on how their enchanted state has changed them, even sharpening the details in their dreams.

The space of fiction within the travelogue opens other perspectives, as in the reappearance of the absurdist freeloaders Calac and Polanco (from Cortázar’s 1968 novel, 62: A Model Kit), who somehow find the couple at multiple rest stops. In a series of fictitious letters from a mother to her son in Canada, the woman notes how she keeps running across the couple with the van at different rest areas: Guessing the nature of their improbable existence, she concludes that “they look a bit happier than normal people.”

Given Cortázar’s tireless activism against tyrannical regimes in Latin America (royalties from the French and Spanish editions of the book were donated to the Sandinistas), the fantastic element in his later stories seems less fantastic and more a haunted reality. The quixotic voyage in Autonauts of the Cosmoroute granted a brief hiatus from weightier concerns—in the couple’s pursuit of a greater intimacy with the world as with each other. Indeed, their journey became a marvelous honeymoon, all the more in that Dunlop, though much younger than her husband, died not five months after it was over.

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