Summer Reading

This being the summer period in UK, there is much in the review sections of the newspapers about what to take as holiday reading. My own suggestion is a short story by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar (1914 – 1984) was an Argentinian writer, who was born in Europe and spent a lot of time in France. In UK he was best known, if at all, for a short story (Las Babas del Diablo) that was a rather loose inspiration for the film ‘Blow up’. [1]. Like his other work Las Babas showed Cortázar’s interest in technology and, interestingly, he explored the idea of what we would today call hypertext in Rayuela (‘HopScotch’) thus providing a never ending narrative. Cortázar was part of the wave of Latin American writers, Garcia Marquez being the most celebrated, that became influential for their mixing of myth with real life events (so called magical realism) and their political leftism. My holiday read is the short story Cortázar’s Autopista del Sur [2].

The story is simply told. It is summer and we are on the motorway going back to Paris. Predictably the sheer volume of traffic means there is a giant traffic jam, the cars slow and eventually grind to a halt. Drivers and occupants are exasperated and try to understand what has happened:

And so all afternoon they heard about the crash of a Floride and a 2CV near Corbeil – three dead and one child injured; the double collision of a Fiat 1500 and a Renault station wagon, which in turn smashed into an Austin full of English tourists; the overturning of an Orly airport bus teeming with passengers from the Copenhagen flight. The engineer was sure that almost everything was false, although something awful must have happened near Corbeil or even near Paris itself to have paralyzed traffic to such an extent.

They fruitlessly look at their watches make renewed calculations but nothing is moving. Time passes, a lot of time, slowly they lose track of their destinations and accept that they are going nowhere. They adjust to the new situation. They start to help each other, they share food and drink:

When the little girl complained of thirst again, the engineer decided to talk to the couple in the Ariane, convinced that there were many provisions in that car. To his surprise, the farmers were very friendly; they realised, that in a situation like this it was necessary to help one another and they thought if someone took charge of the group (the woman made a circular gesture with her hand encompassing the dozen cars surrounding them) they would have enough to get them to Paris. The idea of appointing himself organiser bothered him, and he chose to call the men from the Taunus for a meeting with the couple in the Ariane. A while later the rest of the group was consulted one by one.

They organise themselves into parties to search for more supplies, they play games, they share jokes, they feel love, they deal with death. But just as they are settled into this new life together the traffic starts to move again. They forget the time they spent together and they resume their individual journeys:

And on the car’s antenna the red cross flag waved madly and you moved at fifty-five miles an hour towards the lights that kept growing, not knowing why all this hurry, why this mad race in the night among unknown cars, where no one knew anything about the others, where everyone looked straight ahead, only ahead.

I would re-read the story for several reasons. First, although in my description this story sounds a rather heavy handed parable, it is in fact a playful piece of writing. It mixes fantasy and realism and has an intriguing take on time reflecting the state of the drivers’ moods. For example the story gallops through the period in which the community is working together (seasons pass come and go within a short number of paragraphs) but dwells on the experience of sitting in a car waiting for something to happen.

Cortázar is also very good on cars. The characters are identified by their cars  – though as this is the 1960’s you will need to do a bit of Internet research if you wanted to know what some of the models looked like. He is very good on the experience of being stuck in traffic and the way being in a car affects our outlook on life. Cortázar was writing at a time in which oppressive aspects of technology were being emphasised, at least by ‘progressive’ voices. However I am not sure Cortázar is writing an anti-technology story or even one that is anti-car; as seen earlier he did appear to be genuinely interested in technology. However the context is well chosen. After all, the car, at least the advertising of cars, conjures up images of adventure and a breaking free from physical and social constraint. Yet we find, at least in major cities, and especially in holiday periods, driving mostly offers the sensation of being stuck. The solution to overcoming this problem of immobility is often seen as more technology, for example ‘Smart’ monitoring of traffic movements, interactive Sat Navs, entertainment systems to keep children occupied or mobile devices so that you can turn your car into an office. I think from Cortázar we can learn there is something in this promotion of technology that simply does not add up.

Cortázar’s story is surprisingly topical. Not just because this is the holiday season and many of us will spend a lot of time sitting in slow moving traffic but, in England a major news story concerned lorry drivers who were stuck for days with the closure of the Channel Tunnel [3]. There is an altogether more permanent and desperate kind of being stuck, the experience of migrants to Europe with, in our papers at least, attention focused on Calais. [4]

It would be silly to imagine that left in a state of nature we would discover an unselfconscious social solidarity as in Autopista del Sur, any more than a novel such as Lord of the Flies [5] proves the opposite. Rather Cortázar reminds us there is an alternative view of modernity and, for that matter, shows that we can imagine being social beings if we want to. If nothing else, it should forewarn us that sitting in a car fretting about lost time is not the way to spend your holiday.

[1] The film explored the befuddlement of a fashion photographer who thinks he has, by chance, captured a murder on film, but cannot tell for sure in spite of repeated ‘blow ups’ of the photo in his studio. Wikipedia offers a synopsis at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blowup

[2] Autopista del Sur was first published in 1966 in a collection ‘Todos los Fuegos el Fuego’ and in (American) English ‘All fires the fire, and other stories’, translated by S J Levine. I was taken through Autopista by a patient Spanish teacher first time around and would struggle with the language today. However I would try to re-read it some of it in Spanish to get the rhythm, something which gets lost in translation. Indeed the surreal elements of the story poses a problem for translators (see for example Callaghan, M. (2102) Cross-sections, The Bruce Hall Academic Journal Julio Cortázar’s ‘La Autopista del Sur’: a Critical Comparison of Suzanne Jill Levine’s English Translation with the Original 97 at http://eview.anu.edu.au/cross-sections/vol8/pdf/ch08.pdf ), certainly the translation of Autopista del Sur as ‘The Southern Thruway’ is odd. The translated version is downloadable over the Internet without much difficulty (try cutting and pasting the quotes into a search engine from the text in this post).

[3] for example ‘Lorries queuing on M20 Kent in Operation Stack’ on the BBC web site http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-33647761

[4] For example ‘Fortress Calais: fleeting fixtures and precarious lives in the migrant camp’ on the Guardian web site at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/27/migrant-camp-fortress-calais-jungle

[5] Lord of the Flies is William Golding’s book about schoolboys who find themselves washed up on an uninhabited island, and their descent into bullying and worse. The film by director Peter Brook (1963) is a classic. It was a very popular book for UK schools in the 1960s and 1970s.

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