February 7, 2012
- for Teju, who was just there (see for yourself)
In 1972, Julio Cortázar published a small book called Prosa del Observatorio (Barcelona: Lumen), about his visit to the 18th century observatory built by the Indian Maharaja Jai Singh in Jaipur. Last year, the non-profit publisher Archipelago Books unearthed this little time capsule and released it in English translation for the first time as From the Observatory. Cortázar’s text is a strangely beautiful prose poem in the guise of an essay, using the fabulous architecture of the astronomical observatory as the launching point for a text that twists and flows through time and space. Accompanying his text are nearly forty of his own photographs, disorienting images in which light and shadow sculpt the monumental astronomical structures into architectural and landscape fantasies that seem to emanate from the stories of Borges or the frames of Last Year at Marienbad.
To my eye, From the Observatory bears the unmistakeable birthmark of the year in which Cortázar visited Jaipur – 1968. As student protest movements erupted in Paris and elsewhere, Cortázar wandered among the structures of an astronomical observatory built 250 years earlier, trying to imagine a new, pantheistically-infused philosophy that could derive its moral power from the same immeasurable forces that created and energize the universe. And his Möbius-like text invokes a continuum between the micro and the macro, between mortality and the infinite, between the the night sky and its twin black galaxy beneath the surface of the oceans.
To Cortázar, Jai Singh was “a guerrilla of the absolute,” more explorer than scientist. He was a small-time Maharaja who stood up to more powerful figures, a man who turned to astronomy in order to avoid the “astrological fatality that guided his lineage.” But instead of “organizing the cold chaos,” as Cortázar put it, Jai Singh engaged “in a slow, interminable copulation with a sky.”
I know Jai Singh was with us, on the side of the eel tracing his planetary ideogram in the darkness that distresses the hair-pulling science…Jai Singh knows that a thirst quenched with water will return to torment him, Jai Singh knows that only by becoming water himself will he stop feeling thirsty.
August 2, 2010
We dedicate this expedition and its chronicle
to all the world’s nutcases
and especially to the English gentleman
whose name we do not recall and who in the eighteenth
century walked backwards from
London to Edinburgh singing
For the sake of argument, I would propose that the most intriguing travel narratives are those with the more extreme limitations. My favorite example of the genre is Xavier de Maistre’s A Journey around my Room, first published in 1795, which is the narrative of the author’s travels around the room in which he was imprisoned for forty-two days as a result of a “dueling incident”. (In 2004, Hesperus Press issued a wonderful paperback edition of de Maistre’s travelogue, accompanied by his “sequel” A Nocturnal Expedition around my Room.)
In 1978, shortly after they met, writers Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop (this was Cortázar’s third marriage, Dunlop’s second) hatched a plan that struck them as enticingly perverse. They would travel the national autoroute between Paris and Marseille, not at the usual motorist’s speed but at a snail’s pace. And there would be rules.
1. Complete the journey from Paris to Marseille without once leaving the autoroute.
2. Explore each of the rest areas, at a 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).
For Cortázar, the logical way around the “unbendable” and “arbitrary” rules of society was to make new rules, which had the benefit of forcing yourself “to cheat” on the old rules. He likened this to “playing hopscotch on the slope of a hill,” which would cause the tossed stone to behave erratically so that new rules had to be adopted. Although he rejected the idea that the trip and its rules had “underlying intentions” or were consciously designed to be “a contemporary form of Zen provocation,” Cortázar admitted at the end “we understood wordlessly that perhaps we had carried out the trip obeying unbeknownst to us an interior search.” Like so much of the rules-based performance art of the 1960s and 1970s, Cortázar and Dunlop’s project liberated through limits, provided creative focus by stripping away distractions – in this case, the distractions of life in urban Paris.
Under normal circumstances, Cortázar and Dunlop would have sped heedlessly down the autoroute, making the trip in less than eight hours. But their self-imposed limitations would mean a mere half hour of so of actual driving each day (rest stops in France are clearly closer together than those in the US), stretching the expedition to thirty-three days. The remaining twenty-three and a half hours each day would be spent camping in and exploring the rest stops and co-writing the proposed book, which would become Los Autonautas de la Cosmopista: Une Viaje atemporal Paris-Marseilla (Barcelona, 1983), recently published in English as Autonauts of the Cosmoroute: A Timeless Voyage from Paris to Marseille.
As fate would have it, it wasn’t until the summer of 1982 that Cortázar and Dunlop were able to finally undertake their brave expedition at the wheel of a red VW camper bus nicknamed Fafner (after a Wagnerian dragon). The Falklands War (aka the Guerra de las Malvinas) between England and Argentina was the background news, much to the dismay of Cortázar, an anti-Peronist who had emigrated to France to escape the Argentinian dictatorship. With unfailing scientific precision, the adventurers kept a daily travel log that detailed their meals, the weather and temperature, their progress along the succession of rest stops, and the compass direction in which they had parked Fafner. In chapters that are interspersed between the log entries, Cortázar and Dunlop muse upon their surroundings, their fellow travelers, and on themselves.
Flaubert once said, “To find something interesting, you merely have to look at it long enough.” In the early stages of the trip, the two writers spend much of their time observing and describing the modest limits of the tiny strip of France circumscribed by the fencing that marks the boundaries of the autoroute. Their observations border on the routine, on the hordes of British tourists and the inscrutable Belgians, on the largely banal landscapes and the lurid commercialism of the tourist shops at some of the larger rest areas. But as they slowly progress southward, Cortázar and Dunlop realize that they are perceiving their trip in radically different ways from everyone else on the road, not only because of their role as artists but also because of their constricted rules of engagement.
The autoroute is a rose river, along which floats a barely perceptible violet mist, and the cars and trucks pass like ghosts, their deafening noise hushed at night by the fog that softens everything, by the distance between them as us, which delimits the worlds where we live, as if we were not, nor could ever be, travelers on the same road.
Rest areas, monotonous? To us they seem more diverse all the time, we feel and experience them like microcosms where our red capsule touches down each day as if on undiscovered little planets.
“At the Bornaron rest area, the exaggerated disorder testifies to the perceptible wear and tear on the explorer’s energy reserves.” [top]
“A vast and luminous solitude invites rest at l’Aire de Pont-de-l’Isère.” [bottom]
Eventually, their vivid imaginations take flight.
I set up my typewriter and realize I’ve forgotten something inside Fafner. On my way back, I feel trapped by the view on 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, the vertigo one gets in rare moments of life with 360 degree vision that annihilates and creates at the same time.
What makes the writing so enjoyable is the blend of down-to-earth frankness and unfettered imagination. The intertwined voices of Cortázar and Dunlop are those of two lovers sharing a tiny space and a great lark of an adventure. The reader of Autonauts knows from the author’s biographies on the book cover that this was their final undertaking. Dunlop died in November 1982, before the book even saw production, and Cortázar died less than two years later in 1984. So the book also serves as an intimate self-portrait in which we see two artists build a complete universe out of an 800 kilometer vein of concrete. Here’s Cortázar watching Dunlop waken:
So now I 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 bit of her rump, 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.
When the two travelers reach Marseille, they share a revelation experienced by all explorers before them as they realize how effectively they had left their old world behind them in order to adapt to their new world and its rules on the autoroute.
From the TRAVEL LOG, Wednesday, 23 June
Arrival at the old port, where we stop at the Marcel Pagnol Quay. Final documentary photographs. Our triumph does not make us as happy as we’d expected, quite the contrary. We’re hurt by the din of the city, the smells of the port, the reintegration in temporar affairs that already demands we hurry up…
Unlike most of the other photo-embedded books that I write about here on Vertigo, Autonauts is not fiction (or at least it is not entirely so; the occasional letters that Cortázar receives from his mother will probably strike most readers as pure farce). What is so interesting to me about the photographs included in Autonauts is their decidedly amateur quality. In keeping with the pseudo-scientific approach that Cortázar and Dunlop took in their writing, the accompanying photographs make bold claims to serving as evidence, claims that are decisively undermined by poor quality and an often total lack of sufficient detail. Sometimes they are so indistinct that you think only a researcher blinded by his or her own enthusiasm could appreciate them. For me, their cheeky, deadpan humor prefigures the way in which W.G. Sebald would use photographs in his works of fiction a few years later.