Autonauts of the Cosmoway

by Julio Cortázar

From Fiction 20.1 (2006)

The plan becomes concrete

IN THE AUTUMN of 1978, the basic idea of the expedition had been established, with the following rules of the game:

1. Complete the journey from Paris to Marseilles without once leaving the autoroute.

2. Explore each one of the rest areas, at the rate of two per day, spending the night in the second one without exception.

3. Carry out scientific topographical studies of each rest area, taking note of all pertinent observations.

4. Taking our inspiration from the travel tales of the great explorers of the past, write the book of the expedition (methods to be determined).

By common agreement, and given that neither of us is a masochist, we decided that we will also be allowed to take full advantage of anything we can find along the freeway: restaurants, shops, hotels, etc.

Furthermore, and after having carefully studied the issue (we are now in possession of a map of the freeway that indicates the rest stops, and therefore know there are 65 of them on the Paris-Marseilles route), it seemed impossible to load Fafner [the VW van] with all the provisions necessary for thirty-five days, without risk of succumbing to scurvy, or something worse, during the trip. We then decided to request logistical support from two pairs of friends, one in Paris and the other in the Midi, who could come to replenish us with fresh supplies on the eleventh and twenty-first day of the journey. It was necessary to choose our accomplices carefully; for a start, such a trip would demand a sacrifice on their part, and only those who had completely understood the meaning and importance of the endeavor would be wholeheartedly willing to help us. Secondly, we had to choose friends as crazy as ourselves, as far as possible, otherwise things could go badly wrong. Thirdly, they would have to have both a car and the time available to collaborate. And finally, they obviously had to be true friends, since we were risking our health and even our lives.

On the Midi side there was no hesitation, and we wasted little time in informing the Thiercelins about our project. Not only were they enchanted with the idea, but our valiant Captain Jean offered to come as far as Corbeil to replenish our supplies, if we judged it necessary, offering to travel every three days or even more often if there was anything we lacked. But he soon understood that such frequent visits would somehow affect the seriousness of the expedition--solitary by nature--and it was decided that he would come to our aid only on the twenty-first day once we were already well into the Midi.

A long time went by before we would contact Parisian friends to request the same service. And not because we were short of them but because we had to travel unexpectedly in other directions for different reasons. We told ourselves then that perhaps in the fall, but that autumn we had other obligations, and we swore that in the spring . . . And then the next autumn was upon us, and we intended to leave as soon we got back to Paris but then it turned out Fafner wasn't available for reasons beyond our control, and once again we said we'd go in the spring, and meanwhile, dear reader, don't think we lost heart or sight of the expedition. Quite the contrary, the more our plans were frustrated, the greater our resolve. We kept buying travel books, scientific instruments, we had all the particulars ready; and in the meantime we traveled up and down the autoroutefrom time to time, a freeway that was now different since we saw it as a territory to be explored, and on each occasion we noticed details that until then had escaped us. In short, and increasingly, we screwed up our courage. How long did it take Columbus to set sail? And Magellan? But let the reader think of the final results of their voyages: a new continent instead of the Indies, and an immense ball instead of a tabula rasa. It was worth the wait for the fruits of such determination and patience. We waited four years.

Where in spite of the demons we finally arrive at the end of the prologue, although not without the odd snag.

We still had to find our Parisian accomplices who would help, by providing the logistical support already explained, to assure our survival. We thought of some and then others while preparations advanced in the little house in Tholonet where we spent the summer of '81. What do you think of . . . ? Indeed, but they're on vacation right now and I don't know if we could explain things by letter . . . And . . . ? Mmm, I think they're going away in the fall. And . . . ? Oh, they'd send us straight to a psychiatrist . . .

That's what we were up to one day when we heard in the distance, on the dirt road that led to the cottage, a ptuf-tuf that could only belong to a Volkswagen beetle, and not one of the younger ones. We went out onto the balcony and, oh, miracle of miracles, who did we see emerging from a cloud of dust? Fafnerito, natural son of Fafner by decision of his owners, and archaic survivor of a time when cars were made to last, as you could see from all the scars on his shell; Fafnerito who, thanks to a particularly heroic feat, brought us Anne Courcelles and Necmi Gurman, who got out of the car dying of laughter and swatting themselves energetically to get rid of the dust.

The eyes of Lobo and Osita met, and all was concluded in the space of that look.

Without any doubt Necmi, our favorite Turk, and Anne, his sweet and lively 
companion, filled all the conditions.

1. As far as being friends, they were (and are, as will be seen) true ones.

2. As regards madness, see their arrival in Tholonet in a car that should never have gone further than Port d'Orléans.

3. They had a car, so to speak.

4. Both possessed an ever-present sense of humor, which would surely spur them to participate with great enthusiasm.

5. In view of free time, it might be a little tricky, since Anne bravely travels by train every morning to try to inject a little intelligence into brains that absorb brandy with more ease than they do Latin or Greek, but knowing her goodness and joyful personality, we trust she'd be able to invent a little cold if necessary so that Necmi wouldn't hog all the glory of such an illustrious rescue mission.

Consequently, and after offering them a stiff drink to facilitate things, we made our proposal. (I regret that current technology does not allow the inclusion of cassettes in normal editions of books, for words can never express the laughter that immediately invaded Necmi's entire body and must have been heard on the other side of Mount Sainte-Victoire.)

TRAVEL LOG Friday, May 28th Breakfast: Orange juice, magdalenas, fig jam, coffee.

10:08 AM Departure. Fog.

10:15 Stop: AIRE DE LA RESERVE. Cows!

First things first: we give Fafner a drink (ordinary gasoline, since he is a dragon of simple tastes).

Gray weather, with sunny breaks. Not as cold as yesterday.

There is a shop and a restaurant. We buy a thermometer to replace the one that doesn't work.

Fafner facing: S.E.

Lunch: eggs with mayonnaise, steak with french fries, chocolate mousse, coffee (in the restaurant).

13:10 First telephonic contact with rescue patrol; all well in Paris.
13:18 Departure.
13:21 Enter Burgundy.
Lovely wooded rest area.
We find a caterpillar. 
Dinner: Sauerkraut (which gives us nightmares), cheese, coffee.


Scientific observations: at the second rest area we observed a terracotta colored slug, who put its head into an empty beer bottle on the ground. In the evening, after having parked Fafner prudently on a patch of land free of impurities, we cook some sauerkraut.

Immediately afterwards we observe the presence of a slug, also brick colored, which is approaching our vehicle. Five minutes later, the whole surface of the ground in front of Fafner is covered in slugs advancing towards our dinner. Considering the incident of the second rest area in light of this evening's experience, we reach the conclusion that slugs are of German origin.

(Find images of slugs, their Latin name, etc.) Are they a sign of enemy presence? Don't forget the cork carefully stuck on the wire.

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Julio Cortázar, born in Brussels of Argentine parents, was one of the most important innovators in fiction, both in Europe and South America. 

Anne McLean won the 2004 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Premio Valle Inclán for her translation of Javier Caracas' Soldiers of Salamis.

Autonauts of the Cosmoway (A Roadtrip: Paris-Marseilles) by Julio Cortázar, published by Archipelago Books