Excerpts from "Autonauts of the Cosmoroute"
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Out now from Archipelago Books
The truth is we’re a little overwhelmed by this beginning of the trip in which the scientific obligations confront a considerable dolce far niente, tons of books to read, the preparation of reports that, in the future, you will be reading in the present, which for us will already be long past, and what’s more cook, drive the indomitable Fafner keeping him on a tight rein from rest stop to rest stop (at two per day this is the least important, but the dragon will get offended if we don’t point out his role as third author right from the start).
The result of such understandable beginners’ discouragement is: momentary confusions, collisions when we both reach for the packet of cigarettes lost behind bags and stuff at the same time, tendency to circle around the shrubbery, as good translators of English novels put it, punitive incursions into the bottle of Glen Mavis blended and bottled in Scotland, and meals prepared with a certain tendency towards confusion and splashes. But we already know: if we stay this overwhelmed over the whole course of the journey, it will be a total success.
Monday, 24 May
7:30 Beautiful morning. 19°C.
Breakfast: Orange juice, madeleines, coffee.
8:59 Sabotage? The FLEURY rest stop is closed.
Obliged to continue until the next.
9:03 Stop: AIRE DEARCHÉRES - LA - FORÉT.
(The forest is beyond the boundaries of the rest area). We search with difficulty for a place to settle the dragon; the only convenient site (behind the service station) flaunts a No Parking sign. We take up the gauntlet. Sun shining. The thermometer is not working.
Fafner: Prow facing south.
Lunch: fried eggs with cheese, salad, cheese, apples.
Service station with shop: the “Samaritaine” of the highway: you can even buy televisions (and jars of mustard in the shape of toilets) there.
The actual toilets are clean, and there’s paper.
Contact with civilization: Newspapers!
In the Falkland Islands, the English and the Argentines are killing each other ever more savagely, according to the radio.
We observe an abnormal quantity of magpies who give the impression of wanting to disguise themselves as zebras.
Their number increases as the lunch hour approaches. Magpies in pajamas, says Julio. N.B. This rest area counts for two given the sabotage noted above. Beautiful morning, then it clouds over and rains again. Julio buys a tube of glue to fix the wing mirrors, the tube is empty. Can you glue glass with air in a tube? Change Fafner’s oil at 65,888km. Siesta rather disturbed by monsters that pass by brushing up against us and growling, but Fafner knows how to defend us.
The weather improves in the afternoon, but the grey persists.
Carol has now tried out the washrooms on the ladies’ side, and confirms that all are equally efficient.
Lovely end to the day, cool, bright.
El Lobo has prepared a sumptuous repast.
Dinner: petit salé aux lentilles, cheese, apples.
WHERE THE EXPLORERS DELVE INTO THE PAST AND MEET—DANTES DE NOS JOURS—JULIUS CAESAR, EUGENE SUE AND VERCINGETORIX
Every expedition assumes that in some way Marco Polo, Columbus or Shackleton had not lost the touch with their inner child. Mine, in any case, is entirely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as each rest area opens its peacock’s tail (sometimes a little sparsely feathered, sometimes splendid and iridescent) to fill him with wonder, caterpillars, ants and trucks with charming slogans, like for example the one for SPEEDY SOUP that just went by as I was finishing this sentence.
Today it’s the Beaune-Tailly rest area (+ motel, oh bliss!), where the sign with its underlined name like on them all also includes a strange word that slips stealthily into the caverns of the imaginary: ARCHÉODROME. But since the boy is the father of the man, we begin by checking into the motel, where a passably brothelesque room wraps us in mauve shadows, mistaken lights, a bathtub inviting us to feel like dolphins in perfumed foam, and the siesta that follows all of that, the siesta of love, the deepest of siestas where bodies rest like Siamese twins, arms and thighs and hands overlapping, interweaving in the final loss of all identity, nirvana of blurred pillows, whirlwinded sheets.
When we get to the Archéodrome, the disturbing silhouette of which stands out like a total fracture in this uniform time of gas pumps, general stores and parking lots, the first impression of entering a museum makes us smile; the historic anachronism seems almost a hoax in this unsurprising till now continuum, since after paying for our tickets we begin a trajectory starting from the Burgundian neolithic and culminating in the national epic of the siege of Alesia and the decisive confrontation between Vercingetorix and Julius Caesar, here looking more like Asterix versus Marcello Mastroiani.
But the child keeps watch, begins to tour with growing wonder the reconstructions of huts, tombs, farming methods, arriving finally at the tall defenses of the Roman camp between the besieged city and the rearguard of the invading force menaced by the coalition of the Gallic tribes that heed Vercingetorix’s call. A video then shows us the phases of the battle, in which the military genius of Julius Caesar triumphs over disorderly enemies superior in number. (Against his will but obliged by a crushing logic, the voiceover admits step by step the reasons the Roman eagles would crush the pre-French.)
That’s when I start to live in another way all that I’ve seen and heard this afternoon, when the child emerges from almost sixty years of slumber and once again understands in his way the episodes he’s being shown and told. The book was a Spanish translation of The Mysteries of the People, by Eugéne Sue: two large-format, double-column volumes that had me immersed for a month in a fabulous history of France from the Druids up to, I think, Napoleon III, by way of the Merovingian monarchs, Joan of Arc, the religious wars, the revolution and empire. Of all that, which I could also have remembered in other museums (so many times I’ve relived fragments out of simple association of ideas), the Roman conquest of the Gauls overcomes me today in situ, with the double force of memory and its evocation in the very terrain of its terrible epilogue. I don’t think the battle of Alesia appeared in Eugéne Sue’s novel, but the awakening of the Gauls against the foreign invader certainly did, as did Vercingetorix’s desperate act to try to impose the reason of liberty against the Roman machine advancing league by league, as one advances page by page in Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
As for Caesar, who as a boy I held in the esteem every well-lived boyhood dedicates to warriors and emperors of antiquity, Eugène Sue’s portrait of him scandalized and offended me. The hero of Pharsalus, lover of Cleopatra, is seen as a cruel and career-minded officer, lacking in imagination and generosity, a cold, chess-playing tactician with his legionaries, incapable of measuring the greatness of his enemy (which is true, since he took Vercingetorix to Rome and had him decapitated on the day of his triumph). I remember it took many hours of reading, and Sue’s talent, to persuade me to accept this version of Caesar, but the moment arrived when the boy went over definitively to the Gauls and lived a war at their sides that the history books and Caesar himself had always showed from his.
And just a moment ago, looking at the reconstruction of the traps the Romans set for their enemies in Alesia, and which remind one of those the Vietnamese used against the Yankee invaders, the most terrible and anguished moment of my reading invaded me with all its power, the episode in which nature lays in her turn the most horrific trap for the Roman soldiers. I experienced it again as if I were reading the novel in my house in Banfield, in that moment of childhood when everything was sight, smell, sound and touch, I again saw that legionary who advances like a heavy, slow coleopteran inside his armor and begins to sink in a quaking bog, what the novel calls quicksand, and in which he is submerged bit by bit, struggling desperately to find a handhold, disappearing until only his head with its helmet remain, and then the quicksand closes over him and only a few bubbles of asphyxiation break the surface to the final horror of the boy possessed by that nightmare vision.
While we were returning to the motel I wondered ironically what I would find if I reread Sue’s novel, and that passage in particular (along with the death of Joan of Arc, and the adventures of Fergán el Cantero and Josefino del Francotopo, and who knows what they were called in the original). But I wondered without risk of doing so, because if there’s one thing I know it’s that I’m not going to reread certain childhood books, or those from other times, like Les Enfants Terribles or La Condition Humaine. This Archéodrome is pleasant and accessible; the other ones, the deep down ones, will remain in me just as they were once and forever known; they will stay in the transparent sepulchre of memory, like the terracotta army that guarded the rest of the founding prince of China for so many centuries.
BEGINNING AND END OF THE WORLD FROM A SCHUBERT QUARTET
Looking at the road map, I can see once again that we’re heading in the right direction. Indeed, those who are returning to Paris and want to stop level with La Forêt rest area have to settle for Le Creux Moreau; the fact that they’re both marked on the map with a little sign showing a brand of gasoline and a man perched precariously on top of a tire (incidentally, some aspects of these symbols should perhaps be revised: can disabled people recognize themselves in this new type of unicyclist?) changes nothing in the magic of the names. And at the next stop, there where we rest in the Rossignol rest area, the travelers who take a break on their way back to the capital will find themselves in the Bois de…Corbeaux.
Prudent as ever, we explore the possibilities of our new stop thoroughly before choosing a definitive site. It’s extremely important, given that at ten in the morning the sun makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the Sahara, and the possibilities of the nightingale rest area aren’t so many (it’s clear that having opted for the designation “panorama”, which it fully deserves, they’ve taken the precaution of not obstructing the view with trees or any supplementary installations). There is a tiny island of pines between two tracks for vehicles, which together form a rhomboid, and a little further on, a field we could drive across stretches down to shelter beneath the only tree at the bottom; but the rains of the previous night have been violent, and we worry Fafner might get stuck. Therefore we set our dragon up very close to the little island, at a prudent distance from the WCs, and we take immediate possession of a table under the trees (although it’s still early, travelers are already starting to stop with evident gastronomical intentions, and since the heat tends to excite and exasperate drivers as well as passengers, the results are foreseeable). In a few seconds, thanks to the experience acquired over the course of the expedition, we raise the roof, get the fridge level, set up our deckchairs on the shadiest side of the table, and the table in question becomes occupied in the most unambiguous way by typewriters, books, bottles, glasses, cameras and a soda siphon (to dazzle the incredulous).
We then settle down to have a nice drink, in the first place to congratulate ourselves for having been smart enough to arrive in time to occupy the best place (this could seem egotistical, friend and reader, but just think that where the ordinary traveler makes one stop in a six or eight hour trip, we are pausing in the course of a thirty-three day journey), and in the second place because we’re happy, and some remnant or effluence of the long, beautiful night we’ve just experienced causes us to act as if the fiesta is still ongoing—and it’s also true that this trip is an unending fiesta of life—not to mention that all this helps us to start other activities, given that we haven’t set up our typewriters here only to keep some guy from Lyon from coming to eat his sausages beside us, but also because we want to work and it’s well known that a little drink for inspiration never does any harm.
The important thing after all is that we’re quite a distance from the freeway, given that the Rossignol rest area is a sort of mound that overlooks it. At the same time, I have the impression that up till now I’ve never had such a clear concept of the autoroute; I’ve never seen it stretching off so far in both directions, never had such an impression of harmony by following all the curves and slopes that I can, thanks to the location of the rest area, take in with a single glance. Given the elevation of the terrain, the trucks and cars pass in silence, no roar, no clanging gears, although the Paris-to-Lyon route descends, and the Lyon-to-Paris side climbs considerably. Speed itself seems abolished by this hush; only the slow, harmonious, infinite movement of anonymous yet perfectly discernable shapes can be seen, and seems to correspond to some unfathomable, just and profound need.
I set up my typewriter and realize I’ve forgotten something inside Fafner. On my way back I feel trapped by the view of the other side, a landscape that the morning mists had hidden from us when we arrived. Trapped, and nevertheless I spin around and realize that it’s the same everywhere. I take off from the rest area, more winged than a Chagall character; I am that distant mountain, I drink the blue of those trees that I can barely make out as distinctive entities, I slip down the quarry way over there, and always in the rest area and always still, the spin continues to the point of vertigo, that vertigo one gets in rare moments of life with 360 degree vision that annihilates and creates at the same time.
A brief musical phrase begins to make its way through the whirlwind, similar to the nightingale who tests out his scale as night is falling before launching into his song wholeheartedly. Two, three notes, whose gravity seem to arise from the grandeur of the landscape. A beat, another, and it’s that Schubert quartet which resembles no other, and forgetting what I’d come to look for I climb inside Fafner where I know we have a recording of this very quartet and on which I throw myself frequently with that kind of inevitable violence in moments I cannot define or even relate to each other, and so in less time than it takes me to say so I’m sitting in the back seat, joined to the tape player by the headphone cord like an extraterrestrial creature. The first notes begin, mournful and grave, as the world must once have begun, a music-pain like the landscape that surrounds me, of which I’m part, violin and cello; the grave notes interrupt like a wound and the unexpected sharp heals, and then comes the slow, so slow and marvelous fusion of everything, the harmony searching itself out, hoarding the surrounding mountains and even the tourists who’ve started arriving. In the middle of the rest area, the doors open, enclosed in silence; in an exterior silence the world is born and I see them, I see them all, not just the Lobo who hasn’t stopped typing there beneath the trees, but also the couple who get out of a 4L right beside Fafner and who look, with an inquisitive smile on their lips, at the cassette player, the headphones, my face and my hands that, yes, direct it all, again, as they once directed the formation of the landscape, form the mist that rises faster and faster all around. I see them, I do. But not from my body, not with these eyes which have barely smiled at them. No, I see them from where I listen and which cannot be spoken, from the heart of the stringed instruments, from within the brain of a long dead musician and yet still there, floating and submerging way up above the mountain, with no wall or window or city or house around him, I touch the heart, birth and expansion of the music like the view: in each musician’s finger guiding the arcs like so many other lovers, each foot maintaining the delicate balance of the instrument, each chin resting on its pillow without leaving a trace: with each note, those things that don’t exist and that nevertheless, in moments like this, are all of creation and the finality of the world, I am there, as big as all these mountains, I am the deep quarries, I am the time the cassette lasts, at the same time the movement and stillness that is one, and not even the Germans who approach the car to see whether I’m recording something, nor the family that stops, shocked, to stare with incredulous eyes, can break that perfect circle. Only, perhaps, that little boy who came and sat on the running board and who, turning his back on me, began to sway bit by bit to the rhythm of the quartet, entered consciously, really sharing the experience, even if they’re all part of it.
Rossignol, panoramic parking lot, do your birds sing now, for those who know how to hear, that beautiful Schubert theme that transformed a rest area into the beginning and end of the world?
I presume a good explorer tends to wake up at dawn to make various scientific observations corresponding to the day as it begins. It must be for that reason that I too almost always wake up very early, but instead of getting up and consulting the various instruments Fafner is equipped with, I stay agreeably in the house and devote myself to the study of a subject that Vespucci, Cook and Captain Cousteau never even attempted, in other words: La Osita’s manner of sleeping.
This manner of sleeping is perhaps that of all little bears, something which would be impossible for me to verify, for which reason I shall take care not make imprudent generalizations. In Osita’s case her sleep goes through two principal stages, the first of which is not at all extraordinary: Osita finds the most comfortable, most agreeable position, covers up depending on the atmospheric temperature, and for most of the night sleeps very naturally, almost never face up and almost always face down, with lateral intervals that never last long but which give way to other positions with no effort whatsoever after gentle movements that reveal the depth and pleasure of her sleep.
When dawn arrives, in other words the time when I tend to wake up entirely, for the preceding observations have actually been made without too much scientific rigor, I notice quite soon that Osita has entered the second stage of her slumber. It is here where one might well ask whether this manner of sleeping is all her own or if it extends to the entire species, since it seems like quite unusual, even extraordinary behavior, consisting of continuous attempts the sleeping Osita makes to turn herself into a parcel, a bundle, or a package, which contains everything, thanks to a series of movements, gestures, tugs, pulls and tangles that progressively wrap her up in the sheets until she turns into a big white, pink or blue and yellow striped cocoon, depending on the situation, to the point where a quarter of an hour after this daybreak metamorphosis that I always contemplate in amazement has begun, la Osita disappears in a twisting confusion of sheets, which gradually disappear from my side of the bed, by the way, for no one could imagine the strength Osita employs in drawing them to her until she manages to get entirely involved in them and finally keeps still after one last series of evolutions that complete the chrysalis and the evident happiness of its occupant.
Leaning on my elbow on the mattress, which is all that’s left, I tenderly watch Osita and wonder what deep need to return to the womb or something similar her determined labor every dawn responds to. I know very well (because at the beginning I didn’t know and was frightened) that none of this rejects me, for all I have to do is brush the warm parcel at my side with a finger to get a soft growl of satisfaction to emerge from its depths. The mystery is complete, as you can see, because la Osita is content to feel me at her side and at the same time take refuge in a cloister I cannot enter without destroying its precious darkness, its intimate temperature, and something within her knows it and defends it from daybreak till she wakes. Once—not anymore—I tried to unwrap her as gently as possible from the cocoon, because I was afraid she’d suffocate in the tangled sheets and confused pillows, and I found out what it meant to separate her hands from the knots, bonds and other not so loose ends of the sheets between her fingers. So now I only watch her sleep in her ephemeral and undoubtedly atavistic hibernation and wait until she wakes of her own accord, when she begins to extricate herself little by little, to get a hand out, a trickle of hair, a little bum or a foot, and then she looks at me as if nothing had happened, as if the sheets were not a huge whirl around her, the broken chrysalis from which peeks out my new day, my reason to live a new day.
Julio Cortazár was a celebrated Argentine author of novels and short stories.Carol Dunlop
Carol Dunlop was born in Boston in 1946. She moved to Montreal during the Vietnam War and became a Canadian citizen. She met CortazÃ¡r there in 1977 and moved to France the following year. Dunlop worked as a writer, translator and photographer. She died in Paris in 1982.