The last book by Julio Cortázar (1914–84), the celebrated Argentinean postmodernist, does not look like a love story. Finally translated by Anne McLean, "Autonauts of the Cosmoroute" (Archipelago, 354 pages, $20) has the appearance of a novelty, a travelogue set on the blasé freeway that connects Paris with Marseille. A second glance, reading into the prologue, suggests that the travelogue may be no more than an elaborate, mock-heroic gag, in which Cortázar and his co-author, Carol Dunlop, explore a series of highway rest stops with all the seriousness of a Cortés. Call it Quixotic.
Yet Cortázar's gag has the willfulness of art. With his big glasses and his long, casual limbs, Cortázar looks a little like Robert Smithson, the American artist who saw museum pieces in the armpits of modern landscapes, nobly declaring a random patch of sediment, for example, to be one of the monuments of antiquity. Cortázar and Dunlop are devoted to L'Autoroute du Sud, and insist on visiting only two of its 70-odd stops each day, so that their journey has the painstaking meticulousness of performance art.
At the very least, the book seems to partake of the stylishness of something like Ed Ruscha's "Every Building on the Sunset Strip" (1969). It's all about the built environment, and the audacity of slowness in a high-speed environment. Dunlop admits as much: "We could spend a day in each parking lot, outside the world, imagine, we could relax along this very monster of speed . . ." Theirs is an attempt to warp space and slow down time, and, especially as it is nominally illegal to live for 33 days on the autoroute, the best reference for their project may be the harmless disruptions of the Situationists.
Dunlop was Cortázar's third wife; though much younger than him, she died shortly after their voyage was completed. Cortázar himself died two years later. In the 1950s and '60s, when he moved to Paris and began to forge for Latin American fiction the international pre-eminence it still enjoys, Cortázar devoloped a playful aesthetic that, as evidenced in "Autonauts," also governed his real life. His most famous work, "Hopscotch" (1963), skipped through a patchwork of notions, and "Autonauts" could be read as a rare decision to stand still, to rigorously see this aesthetic through. A kindred work, "62: A Model Kit" (1968) — which itself was spun off from Chapter 62 of "Hopscotch" — presented itself as a manual for living in any city in the world, and "Autonauts" is a species of the same avuncular pseudo-science, a manual for travel.
More than his French contemporaries in the Oulipo group, who did things like write novels without the letter "e," Cortazar made his arbitrary rules mean something, morally. At the beginning of their journey, when he is tempted to slip through a fence, exiting the rest station in favor of the open fields beyond, Cortázar meditates on the importance of keeping even — and especially — the most arbitrary rules. In childhood, he recalls, playing is an obligation, and the rules of hopscotch or tag are part of that obligation:
Entering into the game [. . .] was perhaps the least painful apprenticeship of that loss of liberty we associate (uselessly?) with growing up, "living in society" where the rules are no less arbitrary, at least for the most part.
Cheating, in the present case, would mean cheating on Carol and betraying the spirit of their game. Cortázar congratulates himself on not crossing the fence; he has stayed true to the homo ludens of his childhood and to the adult who knows the value of civilization. As an author of fictions, he knows that to cross the fence, to cheat, would have robbed his quixotic expedition of its meaning.
But what makes "Autonauts" an involving work — and what makes it a genuine love story — are not its theories but its concrete record of privations in near-wilderness, without telephones and good restaurants but also without any established routines. There is no agreed-upon way to spend half a day in a rest stop, a nothing-place no more than a parking lot with a bathroom and a barren picnic table. Other tourists come and go, sometimes eating a rapid lunch, but always going, while Cortázar and Dunlop — el Lobo and la Osita — roost, living out of Fafner, their red VW van.
Their friends take bets: Will boredom drive them back to Paris? The specter of boredom looms over the book itself, and Cortázar's charming digression on a possible cartography for trees, or Dunlop's sexual ode to el Lobo, can feel more like filler than they would in the parti-colored sprawl of an ambitious novel. Here, Cortázar organizes his book with odd prose entries, disciplined logs, numerous well-captioned photographs, and drawings, which advance the journey in a staggered, syncopated style, so that the story is probably not as monotonous to read about as it would have been to live.
But the reader's gathering sense is that Cortázar and Dunlop thrived for the 33 days of their journey. Their instinct, from the start, must have been that this would be a final test for their marriage, one they would pass famously. By the end of the book, the reader feels that he has received a lesson in how to behave — how to balance silliness with follow-through, how to break the rules without lying to yourself, how to be arty if you want to be, how to keep the van neat. Cortázar emphasizes the last in particular, offering up a photo captioned: "Expeditionary discipline: a month into the strenuous voyage, Fafner's interior is still orderly and clean." These were homines who knew how to live.