There are explorations that take us to new worlds, and the explorers come back ready to tell us of all the strange people and artifacts they saw. There is also the exploration of a familiar world in a new way, and that this can be just as enlightening, and entertaining, is the message of _Autonauts of the Cosmoroute_ (Archipelago Books) by husband and wife Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop. Cortázar was a fiction writer and Dunlop a writer, translator, and photographer, and they had planned for years to get away from the demons of Paris. The demons included various ills of modern life, like the telephone and even cutlery: "When we asked of the knives only that they cut a peach or the cheese, they arranged to bite us and, while we did acrobatics to avoid their teeth, their friends the forks came from below to jab us." It was not the South Seas that drew them away, or the Amazon, but a stretch of freeway they had traveled many times before, but no one had traveled it the way they were going to. The 465-mile Autoroute du Sud gets drivers from Paris to Marseilles in just a few hours, but they would make an expedition of it, staying on the autoroute while they stopped at every rest area along it, at the rate of two rest stops a day, a trip that would take just over a month, starting in May 1982. They wrote this book about it shortly thereafter, and it has just now been translated into English by Anne McLean. I can't say anything about the fidelity of the translation, but the words are full of whimsy and magic, and they fit the theme perfectly.
Cortázar and Dunlop may have had a light and whimsical view of the outing, but they took it very seriously, which simply increases the sense of fun they report here. Provisions were planned with care, as were the re-supply caravans from friends who met them along the route. Mock-seriousness pervades the expedition, among whose rules are that the explorers will "carry out scientific and topographical studies of each rest area, taking note of all pertinent observations". Most nights are spent in their red Volkswagen minibus with a roof that expands upward, a minibus christened Fafner, and referred to as "he" throughout the book, and also regarded throughout as a protective dragon. In the rest areas they write, mostly, and plenty of the pictures here (yes, photographic documentation of the expedition) show Cortázar at his typewriter. The scientific observations have to do with slugs and insects, agreeable creatures that the explorers welcome, except for the ants. Weather was generally good, but finding shade in which to put Fafner was often a trial. Some of the rest stops were full of trees and beauty, but one is designated "sinister" and another "Hideous rest stop, especially after the last one." They are amazed by all the tourists who turn the more active stops into international cities. They listen to the news about the Falklands war, and they make themselves comfortable in their hideous lawn chairs, the "Floral Horrors". They find evidence of witches; it turns out that the construction cones are their hats. They make love while highway lights flash through Fafner's windows "like doing it in a kaleidoscope."
It is fully silly and fully charming, and the book stands as a tribute to a wonderful relationship between the two intrepid explorers. It represented, as Cortázar summarizes toward the end of the book, an "advance in happiness and love from which we emerged so fulfilled that nothing, afterwards, even admirable travels and hours of perfect harmony, could surpass that month outside of time, that interior month where we knew for the first and last time what absolute happiness was." And so it is sad to come to the postscript, which Cortázar had to finish alone, for Dunlop died at age 36 only a few months after the expedition; he was to follow her only a couple of years later (their illnesses are only lightly hinted at in the book). This was to be his last book. The reader finishes it with gratitude; these were two imaginative and funny people, and it is generous of them to have had us along for the ride.