The Southern Highway – Julio Cortázar

Gli automobilisti accaldati sembrano nom avere
sotiria… Come realtà, un ingorgo automobilistico
impressiona ma nom ci dice gran che*

ARRIGO BENEDETTI, “L’Espresso”,
Roma, 21/6/1964

At first the girl in the Dauphine had insisted on keeping track of time, though for the engineer in the Peugeot 404 it no longer held any importance. Anyone could look at their watch, but it was as if this Time strapped to one’s wrist or the bip bip of the radio were a measure of something else entirely, Time for those who hadn’t been so stupid as to want to return to Paris via the southern highway on a Sunday afternoon, and, hardly having left Fontainebleu have had to slow down, stop, six lanes on each side (one is aware, of course, that on Sundays the motorway is exclusively reserved for those returning to the capital), put the engine in gear, advance three metres, stop, chat with the two nuns in the 2HP on the right, with the girl in the Dauphine on the left, take a look in the rear-view mirror at the pale man in the Caravelle, ironically envy the chirpy happiness of the young couple in the Peugeot 203 (behind the girl’s Dauphine) that play with their little girl and make jokes and eat cheese, or bear the exasperated whining of the two lads in the Simca in front, and even clamber down and explore a bit without going too far (for one never knows when the cars ahead will recommence their forward march and one will have to rush back so as to avoid the war of car horns and insults from those behind), and so arrive at a Taunus in front of the girl’s Dauphine who hasn’t let up on checking her watch, and exchange a few droll, empty phrases with the two men who are travelling with a blonde child whose immense fun in these precise circumstances consists in running his toy car unhindered over the seats and the bodywork of the Taunus, or daringly advance a little more seeing as it doesn’t seem as if the cars ahead are going to start off again, and contemplate somewhat pitifully the old couple in the Citroën ID that looks like an enormous purple bathtub with the two old fogies floating about inside, he resting his forearms on the steering wheel with an air of patient fatigue, she nibbling an apple with more application than desire.

By the fourth time of taking all this in, of doing all these things, the engineer had decided to stay put thereafter and wait for the police to clear the bottleneck in some way. The August heat was increasing and sticking to the tyres, making the delay all the more frustrating. The air was infused with the smell of gasoline, wild shouting from the young men in the Simca, the glint of sunlight reflected by the glass and chrome edges, and to top it all the contradictory feeling of being enclosed in a thick jungle of machines designed to run free. The engineer’s 404 occupied the second lane on the right counting from the divider between the two motorways, leaving four more cars to his right and seven to the left, although only the eight cars that surrounded him and their occupants were clearly visible, and he had already tired of scrutinising them. He had already chatted with all of them, except the youngsters in the Simca, who he didn’t take much of a fancy to; at intervals he had discussed the situation down to the last detail, and the general impression was that until Corbeil-Essonnes it would be a crawl, but that between Corbeil and Juvisy they would pick up speed once the helicopters and the motorcyclists had managed to clear up the worst of the bottleneck. No-one had any doubt that a very serious accident must have occurred in the area, the only explication for such an incredible hold-up. And with that, the government, the heat, taxes, traffic, one topic after another, three meters, another commonplace, five meters, a sententious comment or a muffled curse.

The two little nuns in the 2HP had best arrive in Milly-la-Forêt before eight since they were carrying a basket of vegetables for the cook. For the married couple in the Peugeot 203 the most important thing was not to miss their television program at nine-thirty; while the young girl in the Dauphine had told the engineer that she didn’t mind if she got to Paris late but that she was complaining in principal as she considered it an outrage to treat thousands of people like a caravan of camels. In the last few hours (it must have been about five but the heat still harried them relentlessly) they had advanced some fifty meters according to the engineer, though one of the men in the Taunus who had come over for a chat, taking the child with the toy car by the hand, ironically pointed to a solitary plantain, and the girl in the Dauphine remembered that that plane tree (if it wasn’t a horse chestnut) had been in line with her car for so long it was hardly worth looking at one’s wristwatch any longer nor losing oneself in useless calculations.

Evening just refused to fall, the sun’s beating on the asphalt and the metalwork brought on a nauseous vertigo. The dark glasses, hankies daubed with cologne on peoples’ heads, the improvised defence measures, to avoid a burning reflection or a mouthful of exhaust fumes, were being devised and perfected, and were the subject of communication and commentaries. The engineer got out again to stretch his legs, exchanged a few words with the couple with the yokelish air in the Ariane that sat in front of the nuns’ 2HP. Behind the 2HP there was a Volkswagen with a soldier and a girl who appeared to be newly-weds. The third row towards the outside lane no longer interested him as he would have had to stray dangerously far from the 404; he saw colours, shapes, Mercedez Benz, ID, 4R, Lancia, Skoda, Morris Minor – the whole catalogue. On the left, in the opposite lane, stretched out another unreachable thicket of Renaults, Anglias, Peugeots, Porches, Volvos, it was so monotonous that finally, after chatting with the two men in the Taunus and trying unsuccessfully to exchange views with the solitary man in the Caravelle, there was nothing left to do but go and have a the same conversation about the time, distances and cinema with the girl in the Dauphine.

From time to time a stranger would come along, slipping between the cars from the other side of the motorway or from the lanes on the outside right to bring news, probably untrue, passed on from car to car over the burning kilometres. The stranger savoured the success of his tales, the slam of the car doors as the travellers rushed to pass comment on the latest goings on, but after a while they would hear a car horn beeping or an engine starting and the stranger would run off, zig-zagging between the cars to rejoin his own group and not leave himself exposed to the righteous anger of the rest. As the afternoon went on they had learned of a crash involving a Florida and a 2HP near Corbeil, three dead and an injured child; of the double collision of a Fiat 1500 with a Renault van which had in turn smashed into an Austin full of English tourists; of a jackknifed airport bus coming from Orly with passengers on a connecting flight from Copenhagen. The engineer was certain that all or almost all of this was false, although something grave must have happened near Corbeil or even in the outskirts of Paris for the traffic to have been paralysed up to this point. The country folk in the Ariane, who had a farm in the vicinity of Montereau and knew the region well, told of another Sunday when the traffic had been backed up for five hours, but such a time frame was beginning to look rather insignificant now that the sun, setting over the left-hand side of the route, was spilling over every one of them a last avalanche of orange jelly that made the metal boil and distorted one’s vision so that no tree top ever disappeared, turning away, nor did any of the barely perceptible shadows in the distance ever come any closer so as to make them feel they were really moving, though be it in the slightest, even if it were only to stop and start and brusquely step on the brake without ever getting out of first gear nor rid oneself of the mocking disillusionment of going once more from first to a dead stop, foot brake, handbrake, stop, again and again and again.

At one point, sick of sitting around, the engineer had decided to take advantage of an especially protracted standstill and go for a walk along the lanes on the left, and turning his back on the Dauphine he had found a DKW, a 2HP, a Fiat 600 and had stopped next to a De Soto to chat with the alarmed tourist from Washington who barely spoke French but who had to be at the Place de l’Opéra at eight without fail, you understand, my wife will be awfully anxious, damn it,[1] and they were talking a little bit about everything when a man with the air of a travelling salesman hopped out of the DKW to inform them that someone had come by a while ago with the news that a Piper Club had crashed right in the middle of the motorway, leaving several people dead. The American couldn’t care less about the story of the Piper Club, nor could the engineer, who heard a chorus of car horns and rushed to make it back to the 404, relating on the way the news to the two men in the Taunus and the couple in the 203. He reserved a more detailed explanation for the girl in the Dauphine as the cars moved slowly forward a few metres (now the Dauphine was slightly behind in relation to the 404, and later it would be the opposite, but in fact the twelve lanes were moving almost in unison, as if an invisible gendarme at the end of the motorway were co-ordinating the advance without letting anyone exert any kind of advantage). A Piper Club, Miss, is a small town car. Ah. What bad taste to crash right on the freeway on a Sunday afternoon. These things happen. If at least it wasn’t so hot in these goddamn cars, if the trees on the right would finally turn their back, if the last number on the dial would finally fall from its little black slot instead of handing there endlessly by the tail.

In some moment (twilight was coming on softly, the horizon of car roofs was turning lilac) a large butterfly landed on the Dauphine’s windshield and the girl and the engineer admired its wings in their brief and perfect repose; they watched it fly off in an exaggerated state of nostalgia, pass over the Taunus, the old couple’s ID, head towards the Fiat 600, no longer visible from the 404, come back in the direction of the Simca where a grasping hand tried to grab it, saw it flutter amiably over the yokels’ Ariane, who seemed to be eating something, and lose itself somewhere off to the right. At nightfall the column made its first important advance, almost fourty metres; when the engineer looked distractedly at the mileometre half of the six had disappeared and the seven’s tail could be seen hanging down. Almost everyone was listening to the radio: those in the Simca had theirs on full blast and were improvising a twist that shook the entire vehicle; the nuns had lost count of how many rosaries they had said, the little boy in the Taunus had fallen asleep with his face against the glass, still clutching the toy car in his hand. At some point (night-time was well under way) a few strangers arrived with more news, as contradictory as all that which they had already forgotten. It hadn’t been a Piper Club but a glider piloted by a general’s daughter. It was true that a Renault van had crashed into an Austin, just not in Juvisy, rather right near the gates of Paris. One of the strangers explained to the couple in the 203 that there had been a split in the tarmacadam near Igny and that five cars had overturned after their front wheels became lodged in the crack. The idea of a natural disaster made it as far as the engineer, who shrugged his shoulders without a word. Later on, thinking about those first few hours of darkness in which they had breathed a little easier, he recalled that at one stage he had stuck his arm out the window to tap on the hood of the Dauphine and wake up the girl who had fallen asleep at the wheel disregarding the possibility of any new advance. It may already have been midnight when one of the nuns timidly offered him a ham sandwich, presuming he was hungry. He accepted it out of courtesy (he only really felt nauseous) and asked if he could share it with the girl in the Dauphine, who accepted and gobbled it up along with a bar of chocolate she had been passed by the driver of the DKW, her neighbour on the left-hand side. Many people had gotten out of their baking cars as once again several hours had gone by without moving an inch; they were getting thirsty now, having already drained to the last drop all the bottles of lemonade, coca cola and even all the wine on board. The first to complain was the little girl in the 203, and the soldier and the engineer abandoned their cars along with the girl’s father to look for water. In front of the Simca, where the radio seemed nourishment enough, the engineer came across a Beaulieu occupied by a middle-aged woman with a worried look in her eyes. No she didn’t have any water but she did have some sweets for the little girl. The married couple in the ID consulted a moment before the old woman put her hand in her bag and produced a small carton of fruit juice. The engineer thanked them and asked if they were hungry and if he could be of service; the old man shook his head but the woman appeared to assent implicitly. Later on the girl in the Dauphine and the engineer explored the rows to the left together, without drifting too far; they brought back some biscuits for the old woman in the ID just in time for a hail of car horns sent them running to their vehicles.

Apart from these minor excursions, there was so little they could do that the hours could only pile up one on top of the other, for there was nothing to tell them apart; at one point the engineer thought of scratching this day out of his diary and gave a hollow laugh at the idea, but some time later when the nuns, the men in the Taunus and the girl in the Dauphine started with their contradictory calculations, it became clear that it would have been better to have kept more accurate record. The local radio stations had ceased transmission, and only the traveller in the DKW had a short-wave device that persisted in transmitting news from the stock exchange. Somewhere around three o’clock in the morning they appeared to come to a tacit agreement to rest, and until dawn the column did not move. The lads in the Simca took out some air beds and stretched out alongside the car; the engineer put back the front seats of his 404 and offered the headrests to the nuns, who refused; before lying down to rest the engineer thought about the girl in the Dauphine, so still against the wheel, and without making a big deal, offered to change cars with her until dawn; she refused, saying she could sleep well any which way. For a while the child in the Taunus could be heard crying, laid out in the back seat where he must have been too warm. The nuns were still praying when the engineer let himself fall back on the headrest and began to doze off, but not even his tiredness could break his vigil and he eventually woke up sweaty and ill-at-ease, not realising at first where he was; sitting up, he became aware of confused toings and froings outside, of shadows slipping between the cars, and he saw a bulk heading towards the side of the motorway; guessing why, soon after he too stepped silently out of the car to relieve himself by the side of the road; there were neither hedges nor trees, just the black countryside, unlit by stars, which looked like a an abstract wall delimited by the tarmacadam’s white ribbon  and its frozen river of cars. He almost bumped into the yokel from the Ariane, who muttered something unintelligible; the smell of gasoline, so inescapable over the burning kilometres of the motorway, was now joined by the most acrid presence of man, and the engineer went back to his car as quick as he could. The girl in the Dauphine was sleeping on the steering wheel, a lock of hair hanging over her eyes; before getting into the 404 the engineer amused himself studying the shadow of her profile, teasing out the curve of her lips as they breathed softly. On the other side, the man in the DKW was watching her, too, smoking away in silence.

In the morning they advanced very little, but just enough to give them the hope that this afternoon the way would be cleared for Paris. At nine a stranger arrived: they had repaired the cracks in the tarmac and soon normal traffic would resume. The boys in the Simca turned on the radio and one of them climbed onto the roof and shouted and sang. The engineer said to himself that this news was as a doubtful as that of the night before, and that the stranger had taken advantage of the group’s happiness to ask for and obtain an orange from the couple in the Ariane. Later on another journeyman came by with the same spiel, but he left empty-handed. It was getting steadily warmer and people preferred to stay in their cars awaiting confirmation of better news. At midday the little girl in the 203 started crying again, and the girl in the Dauphine went to play with her and befriended the couple. Those in the 203 had no luck: to their right was the silent man in the Caravelle, disconnected from all that was going on around him, while to the left they had to put up with the rage of the driver of the Concorde, for whom the traffic jam was an exclusively personal affront. When the child began to complain of thirst again, it occurred to the engineer to go and talk to the couple in the Ariane, sure they would have a supply of provisions. To his surprise the peasants proved themselves to be very friendly; they understood that in such circumstances everyone had to look out for each other, and they thought that if someone took it upon himself to direct the group (the woman made a circular motion with her hand, encompassing the dozen or so surrounding cars) there should be no shortages until they reached Paris. The engineer was not too fond of the idea of proclaiming himself leader, and he called the two men in the Taunus for a conference with the couple in the Ariane. A while later they discussed the matter successively with the whole group. The young soldier agreed immediately and the couple in the 203 offered what little provisions they had left (the girl in the Dauphine had acquired a glass of water with granadine for the little girl, who was laughing and playing). One of the men in the Taunus went to enquire of the young lads in the Simca, but got a mocking response; the pale man in the Caravelle shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t care, that they do whatever they thought best. The old couple in the ID and the Beaulieu appeared visibly contented, as if they felt more secure. The drivers of the Florida and the DKW made no observations, while the American in the De Soto looked amazed and said something about God.  The engineer had no problem in suggesting that one of the men from the Taunus, with whom he felt an instinctive trust, take care of co-ordinating the activities. No-one would lack food for the moment, but they had to look for water; the chief, as the lads in the Simca were calling him simply for fun, asked the engineer, the soldier and one of the boys to explore the area around the motorway and offer food in exchange for drink. Taunus, who evidently knew how to lead, had calculated that they need to cover themselves for a day and a half at most, taking the least optimistic outlook. In the peasants’ Ariane and the nuns’ 2HP there was enough supplies for such a time frame, and if the explorers returned with water the problem would be resolved. But only the soldier came back with a full canteen, and its owner was demanding enough food for two people. The engineer could find no-one willing to give water but the trip was of use in that he discovered that beyond their own group other cells were beginning to be formed by people with similar problems; at one point the driver of an Alfa Romeo refused to discuss the matter and sent him to talk to his group’s representative, five cars back in the same row. Later on they saw one of the boys from the Simca come back; he had not managed to get any water but Taunus estimated they already had enough for the two children, the elderly woman in the ID and the rest of the women. The engineer was telling the girl in the Dauphine of his excursion around the periphery (it was one in the afternoon and the sun had corralled them in the cars) when she interrupted him pointing to the Simca. In two bounds the engineer made it to the car and grabbed one of the boys by the elbow as he crouched down in his seat sucking down large draughts from a canteen he had brought back hidden in his jacket. The engineer responded to his angry gesture by applying even more pressure on the arm; the other young man hopped out of the car and threw himself at the engineer, who took two steps back and waited for him almost pitifully. The soldier was already on his way, running, and the nuns’ shouting alerted Taunus and his companion; Taunus heard what was going on, walked over to the youngster with the bottle and gave him a couple of slaps. He yelled in protest, sniffling away, while the other grumbled, not daring to step in. The engineer took the bottle away and handed it to Taunus. The horns had begun to sound and everybody went back to their cars, all the more pointlessly since the column hardly moved forward five meters.

At the siesta hour, beneath a sun even more unrelenting than that of the day before, one of the nuns removed her habit while the other daubed her chest with cologne. The women improvised some Samaritan work bit by bit, going from car to car taking care of the children so that the men would not be overburdened; no-one was complaining but the good humour was forced, always based on the same word-play and a good-natured scepticism. For the engineer and the girl in the Dauphine the biggest vexation was feeling sweaty and dirty; while the rotund indifference of the country folk to the odour billowing out of their armpits every time they came over to chat or impart the latest piece of gossip was almost sweet. Towards nightfall the engineer looked casually in the rear-view mirror and saw, as always, the pale, tense face of the man in the Caravelle, who, like the fat driver of the Florida, had remained apart from all that had been going on. It appeared to him that the man’s features had sharpened even more and he wondered if he was ill. But later on, having gone to talk to the soldier and his wife he had the opportunity to take a closer look and he told himself that the man was not sick; it was something else, a detachment, to call it something. The soldier in the Volkswagen confided to him later on that his wife was afraid of that silent man who never left the steering wheel and who seemed to sleep with his eyes open. Hypotheses were formulated, a whole folklore created to stave off the boredom. The children from the Taunus and the 203 had made friends, fought and made up again; their parents visited each other, and the girl in the Dauphine went every once in a while to see how the ladies in the ID and the Beaulieu were doing. When at twilight there were a few stormy gusts of wind and the sun got lost among the clouds that were gathering in the west, the people cheered up thinking that a fresh spell was on the way. A few drops fell, coinciding with an extraordinary advance of almost one hundred meters; in the distance there was a flash and it got even warmer. The atmosphere was so charged that Taunus, with an instinct the engineer admired without comment, left the group in peace until night-time, as if he feared the effects of the tiredness and the heat. At eight the women took charge of distributing the supplies; they had decided that the peasants’ Ariane would serve as a depository, and that the nuns’ 2HP would be used for any surplus. Taunus had gone in person to talk to the chiefs of the four or five neighbouring groups; afterwards, with the help of the soldier and the man from the 203 he took some food to the other groups, coming back with some water and a little wine. It was agreed the boys in the Simca would cede their air mattresses to the old women in the ID and the Beaulieu respectively; the girl in the Dauphine gave them two Scottish throwovers, and the engineer offered his car, which he jokingly referred to as the ‘sleeper’, to whomsoever might need it. To his surprise, the girl in the Dauphine accepted the offer and that night he shared the headrests with one of the nuns; the other went to sleep in the 203 next to the little girl and her mother, while the husband spent the night on the asphalt wrapped in a blanket. The engineer did not feel tired and so played dice with Taunus and his friend; at one point they were joined by the countryman from the Ariane and they talked politics while having a few drinks of the liquor the latter had handed over to Taunus that morning. It wasn’t a bad night; it had cooled and a few stars were shining between the clouds.

Sometime before sunrise sleep got the better of them, that need to be under cover that is born with the greyish dawn. While Taunus slept next to the boy in the back seat, his friend and the engineer rested in the forward section. As sleep crowded his eyes, the engineer thought he heard shouts in the distance and he saw an indistinct flash; the leader of another group came to tell them that thirty cars ahead a small fire had broken out in an Estafette, caused by someone’s clandestine attempt to cook some vegetables. Taunus joked about the goings-on as he went from car to car to see how everyone had passed the night, nevertheless not a single word he had to say was missed. That morning the column began to move very early and there was much running and agitation in order to gather up all the mattresses and blankets; though since the same thing was no doubt happening all over nobody got impatient or beeped their horns. By midday they had advanced more than fifty meters and they began to make out the shadow of a wood off to the right of the road. They grumbled jealously at the luck of those who could go off to the hard shoulder and take advantage of the coolness of the shade; perhaps there was a stream or a tap with drinking water. The girl in the Dauphine closed her eyes and thought of a shower, water cascading over her chest and back and running down her legs; the engineer, who was watching her out of the corner of his eye, saw two tears slip down her cheek.

Taunus, who had just gone ahead to check on the ID, came looking for the younger women to take care of the old lady as she was not feeling well. The chief of the third group to the rear contained a doctor and the soldier ran to find him. The engineer, who had followed the efforts of the boys in the Simca to reingratiate themselves with ironic benevolence, understood that now was the time to give them their opportunity. With parts of a camping kit, the boys covered the windows of the 404, turning the sleeper into an of ambulance so that the old lady could rest in relative darkness. Her husband laid down by her side, holding her hand, and they were left alone with the doctor. Afterwards, the nuns took care of the woman, who felt better, and the engineer passed the afternoon as he he could, visiting other cars and resting in Taunus’s when the sun became too unbearable; just three times he had to run to his car, where the old folks seemed to be at death’s door, to move it forward with the rest of the column until the next halt. Night fell again without their having reached the wood.

At about two in the morning the temperature dropped and those with blankets were glad to be able to wrap themselves up. As the column would not make any new push until dawn (an intuitive hunch borne by the wind, which came from the horizon of motionless cars in the night) the engineer and Taunus sat down to smoke and chat with the peasant from the Ariane and the soldier. Taunus’s calculations had already lost all relevance as regards the current situation, and he said as much openly; in the morning something would have to be done in order to source more food and drink. The soldier went to look for the leaders of the neighbouring groups, who were not sleeping either, and they discussed the matter in hushed voices so as to not wake the women. The chiefs had spoken with those responsible for the furthest removed groups, in a radius of eighty to one hundred vehicles, so they were certain the situation was analogous on all sides. The countryman knew the region well and proposed that two or three men from each group go out at first light to purchase provisions at the surrounding farms, while Taunus took care to designate drivers for the cars that would be left empty during the expedition. It was a good idea and not difficult to round up a pot of money for the volunteers; it was decided that the countryman, the soldier and Taunus’s friend would go together and take all the bags, nets and canteens available. The chiefs of the other groups returned to their units to organise similar expeditions, and at dawn the situation was explained to the women and the necessary done so that the column could stay on the move. The girl in the Dauphine told the engineer that the old woman had greatly improved now and insisted on going back to her car. In any case, Taunus had decided that the 404 should be permanently available as the ambulance; the lads in the Simca amused themselves by making a flag with a red cross and attaching it to the car’s antenna. For the last while people had preferred to leave their cars as little as possible; the temperature continued to fall and at noon came quick, heavy showers and flashes of lightning in the distance. The peasant’s wife rushed to collect water in a funnel and a plastic jug, which particularly delighted the boys in the Simca. Taking all this in, bent over the steering wheel with an open book that did not interest him greatly, the engineer wondered why the expeditionaries were taking so long in returning; later on Taunus called him over discretely and once they were inside he confided that they had failed. Taunus’s friend gave details: the farms were either abandoned or the people there had refused to sell them anything, citing the rules on selling to individuals and suspecting they might be inspectors taking advantage of the situation to try and trap them. In spite of all this, they had managed to bring back a small amount of water and a few supplies, quite possibly stolen by the soldier who smiled without revealing anything. Of course it couldn’t be much longer until the traffic jam ended, but the supplies available were not the most appropriate for the two children and the old woman. The doctor, who came by about half past four to see the patient, waved his arm in a manner both tired and exasperated and told Taunus that it was the same story in his own group and all the neighbouring ones. On the radio there had been talk of an emergency operation to clear the motorway, but apart from a helicopter that appeared briefly at twilight no help was forthcoming. In any case it was growing ever cooler and people seemed to wait for the night-time in order to wrap themselves up in blankets and kill off a few more hours of waiting in sleep. From his car the engineer could hear the girl in the Dauphine talking with the man in the DKW, who was telling her stories and making her laugh mirthlessly. He was surprised to see the lady from the Beaulieu as she almost never left her car, and he got out to see if she needed anything, but she she was just enquiring after the latest news and got to chatting with the nuns. An indefinable weariness hung over them as night came on; more was expected of the sleep than of the news that was always either debunked or completely contradictory. Taunus’s friend wandered over discretely to find the engineer, the soldier and the man from the 203. Taunus announced that the driver of the Floride had deserted; one the lads in the Simca had seen the empty car and after a while had gone to look for the owner in order to break the tedium. Nobody knew much about the fat man in the Floride who had complained so much the first day but afterwards had kept as quiet as the man in the Caravelle. When at five in the morning there remained no doubt but that Floride, as the boys in the Simca liked call him, had disappeared taking with him one suitcase and leaving behind another full of shirts and underwear, Taunus decided that one of the lads should take charge of the abandoned car so as to not hold up the column. Everyone was vaguely annoyed by this midnight desertion, and wondered where Floride could have gotten to in his fugue across the fields. As for the rest, it seemed to be the night for big decisions: stretched out in his 404 the engineer thought he heard a moan but figured the soldier and his wife must be engaged in something that, after all, was understandable in the middle of the night and in these circumstances. He thought better of this soon after and lifted the canvas that was covering the back window; by the light of a few stars, a meter and a half behind he saw the eternal windscreen of the Caravelle, and behind, as if stuck to the glass and listing slightly, the man’s convulsed face. He slipped silently out of the left-hand side so as to avoid waking the nuns and made his way to the Caravelle. Next he sought out Taunus, and the soldier ran to alert the doctor. Of course the man had killed himself by poison; the lines in his notepad were enough to confirm it, along with a letter addressed to one Yvette, someone from Vierzon who had left him. Luckily the custom of sleeping in the cars was well established now (the nights were so cold that no-one even considered spending the nights outside) and it was of little importance if a few people were passing between the cars to relieve themselves discretely at the edge of the motorway. Taunus convened a council of war, and the doctor agreed with his proposal. Leaving the body on the side of the road meant subjecting those behind to a spectacle that was, at the very least, distressing; taking it off in open countryside could well provoke a violent response from the locals, who the night before had threatened and beaten a young man from another group who was looking for something to eat. The peasant in the Ariane and the travelling salesman in the DKW had the necessary equipment to hermetically seal the Caravelle’s boot. As they began their work they were joined by the girl in the Dauphine, who clung off the engineer’s arm, trembling. He explained to her what had happened and sent her back to her car, calmer now. Taunus and his men had put the body in the luggage compartment and the salesman did the job with scotch tape and liquid glue by the light of the soldier’s lantern. As the woman in the 203 knew how to drive, Taunus resolved that the soldier take charge of the Caravelle that lay to their right; hence in the morning the little girl in the 203 discovered that her pappy had a new car, and played for hours and hours going from one to the other and installing some of her toys in the Caravelle.

For the first time it was cold in the middle of the day and no-one thought of taking off their jackets. The girl in the Dauphine and the nuns made an inventory of the coats available to the group. A few pullovers appeared by chance in the cars or random suitcases, some blankets, raincoats and vests. A list of priorities was established and the jackets distributed. Water was once again in short supply, and Taunus sent three of his men to try and re-establish contact with the locals. Without being able to determine why exactly, the opposition from the outside world was unbreakable; one had no more than go beyond the limits of the motorway for stones to come  raining down. In the middle of the night someone let fly a scythe that bounced on the roof of the DKW and landed next to the Dauphine. The travelling salesman grew very pale and stayed in his car but the American from the De Soto (who was not part of Taunus’s group but whom everyone appreciated for his good humour and laughter) came running, and after kicking the scythe he flung it back into the field with all his might, cursing loudly. However, Taunus did not consider deepening hostilities worthwhile; perhaps it was still possible to make a run in search of water.

No-one kept track anymore of how far they had advanced this day or that; the girl in the Dauphine reckoned it was between eighty and two hundred meters; the engineer was less optimistic but enjoyed prolonging and complicating his neighbour’s calculations, taking interest from time to time in order to distract her attention from the travelling salesman, who was courting her in his own particular manner. That afternoon, the youth who was in charge of the Floride ran to let Taunus know that Ford Mercury was offering water at a good price. Taunus rejected the idea, but in the evening one of the nuns asked the engineer for a sip of water for the old woman in the ID who was suffering in silence, never letting go of her husband’s hand and attended in turn by the nuns and the girl in the Dauphine. There was half a litre of water left, and the women decreed it should be for the old woman in the Beaulieu. That same night Taunus paid for two litres of water out of his own pocket; Ford Mercury promised to get more for the next day, at double the price.

It was difficult to get together to talk as it was so cold nobody would leave their car unless it was of the utmost imperative. The batteries were beginning to run out so they could not leave the heating on all the time; Taunus decided that the two cars in best condition would be reserved for the sick, if the case should arise. Wrapped up in blankets (the young men in the Simca had ripped out the upholstery in their car in order to make vests and hats, and others were beginning to copy them), everyone tried to open their doors as little as possible to conserve the heat. On one of these frozen nights the engineer heard the girl in the Dauphine choking down her tears. Without a sound he gradually eased open the door and groped around in the dark until he found her wet cheek. Without so much as a murmur the girl let herself be drawn into the 404; the engineer helped her lay down in the seat, he covered her in the only blanket he had and threw a jacket over her. The darkness was even thicker in the ambulance-car, its windows blocked by the tent canvas. At one point the engineer pulled down the shades and hung his shirt and a pullover from them to shut off the car completely. Near dawn she whispered in his ear that before crying she thought she had seen the lights of a city.

Perhaps it was a city but in the morning fog they could hardly see twenty yards. Strangely, that day the column made quite a considerable advance, maybe two or three-hundred meters. This coincided with fresh revelations on the radio (which almost no-one listened to anymore except Taunus, who felt obliged to keep himself up to date); the announcers were speaking in emphatic tones of exceptional means being taken that would clear the motorway, and they referred to the exhausting work of the foot patrols and the police force. Suddenly one of the nuns became delirious. As her companion looked on in shock and the girl in the Dauphine rubbed perfume on her chest, the nun spoke of Armageddon, of the Ninth Day, of fire and brimstone. The doctor took a long time to arrive, cutting a path through the snow that had been falling since midday and had formed little walls around the cars. He cursed the lack of drugs available to calm her down and recommended that the nun be moved to a car with better heating. Taunus put her in his own car while the child went to the Caravelle with his little pal, the girl from the 203; they played with their toys and had a great time as they were the only ones who were not suffering from hunger. All that day and the following days it snowed almost continuously, so that when the column advanced a few meters they improvised ways of clearing off the masses of snow heaped up between the cars.

Surprise would have been the last thing expressed by anyone at the way in which the water and supplies were being obtained. The only thing Taunus could do was manage the pot of money and try to barter as best he could. Ford Mercury and Porsche came every night to peddle their provisions; Taunus and the engineer took charge of distributing them, taking into consideration each person’s health. Incredibly, the old woman in the ID was still alive, lost in a stupor the women were trying to dissipate. The lady in the Beaulieu, who just a few days before had been vomiting and suffering from nausea, had recovered in the cold weather and and was one of those who helped the nun most with her companion, weak still and a little disorientated. The soldier’s wife and the woman from the 203 were minding the children; the travelling salesman, perhaps to distract himself from the fact that the girl in the Dauphine had preferred the engineer, spent hours telling them stories. At night the lives of the group took on a stealthy, more private character; the car doors would open silently to let in or out some shivering silhouette; no-one looked at anyone else, their eyes as blind as their very shadow. Beneath dirty anoraks, with overgrown fingernails, smelling of being confined in stale, old clothes, there was still a degree of happiness here and there. The girl in the Dauphine had not been mistaken: far off gleamed the lights of a city, and little by little they would get closer. In the afternoons the lad in the Simca would climb out onto the roof of his car to maintain a defiant vigil, incorrigibly wrapped up in pieces of upholstery and green tow. Fed up of scanning for the thousandth time he turned his gaze to the cars around him; with not a little envy he discovered Dauphine in the 404’s car, a hand caressing a neck, the end of a kiss. Purely for amusement’s sake, now that he had won back 404’s friendship, he began shouting that the column was about to move; so Dauphine had to leave the 404 and go back to her own, though after a while she went back, seeking warmth, and the lad on the Simca wished he could bring some girl from one of the other groups back to his own car; but it wasn’t even seem worth thinking about given how cold and hungry they were, not to mention that the group in front had a hostile attitude to Taunus’s for something to do with a can of condensed milk, and besides the official transactions with Ford Mercury and Porsche there was no possibility of interaction with other groups. So the boy on the Simca just sighed in frustration and went back to his post until the snow and the cold forced him shivering back into his car.

But the cold was beginning to ease, and after a spell of wind and rain that exasperated everyone and made getting supplies even more difficult, there followed fresh, sunny days where it was possible to leave the cars, pay visits, reestablish ties with neighbouring groups. The chiefs had discussed the situation, and finally peace was brokered with the group in front. Of Ford Mercury’s sudden disappearance many spoke for a long time without the slightest idea of what had happened to him; but Porsche kept on showing up regularly and supplying the black market. They were never completely without water or food, although the group’s funds were getting smaller and Taunus and the engineer worried about what would happen the day there would be nothing left for Porsche. There was talk of a coup, of taking him prisoner and demanding he reveal the source of the supplies, but over the next few days the column advanced a good stretch and the chiefs agreed to wait a while longer and avoid ruining everything with a rash decision. The engineer, who had lately dug himself into a rut of almost agreeable indifference, was startled for a moment by the girl in the Dauphine’s timid announcement, but afterwards he understood that nothing could be done to avoid it and the idea of having a child with her ended up seeming as natural to him as the nocturnal division of the supplies or the furtive trips to the side of the motorway. Neither was the death of the old woman in the ID a great surprise to anyone. Once again they had to work in the middle of the night, accompany and attempt to console her husband, who refused to understand. A fight broke out between two groups to the rear and Taunus had to act as arbiter to resolve the the dispute, however precariously. Anything could happen at any given moment, outside any foreseeable time frame; the most important of all occurred when nobody expected it anymore, and it was the person with least responsibility who realised first. Sitting on the roof of the Simca, it struck the cheerful watchman that the horizon had changed somehow (it was evening, low, sloping light streamed from a yellowish sun) and that something inconceivable was taking shape five hundred meters away, three hundred, two hundred and fifty. He yelled back to the 404 and 404 said something to Dauphine who skipped rapidly back to her car, while Taunus, the soldier and the peasant were already racing back and on the roof of the car the young man was pointing ahead and repeating the news endlessly as if trying to convince himself what he was seeing was true; then there was the rumble of upheaval, something like a heavy yet uncontrollable migratory impulse that was awaking from an interminable lethargy and testing its strength. Taunus shouted them back to their cars; the Beaulieu, the ID, the Fiat 600 and the Soto took off in the same bound. Now the 2HP, the Taunus, the Simca and the Ariane began to move, and the young man in the Simca, proud as if it were his own personal triumph, turned around to the 404 pumping his arm while the 404, the Dauphine, the nuns’ 2HP and the DKW were getting under way. But the question was how long all this was going to last; 404 asked himself this almost out of routine as he kept his car level with Dauphine and smiled over to her to give her confidence. Behind, the Volkswagen, the Caravelle, the 203 and the Floride took off slowly in their turn; a stretch in first gear, then second, second gear for what seemed like an eternity though without having to step on the clutch as so many times before, foot placed firmly on the accelerator, hoping to make it to third. Stretching out his left arm 404 sought out Dauphine’s hand but barely grazed her fingertips, saw in her face an expression of incredulous hope and thought of arriving in Paris and bathing, they would go somewhere together, to his place or hers to take a bath, eat, bathe endlessly and eat and drink, and after there would be furniture and a bathroom with foam for a proper shave, and toilets, food and toilets and sheets, Paris was a toilet and two sheets and hot water for one’s chest and legs, and a nail scissors, and white wine, they would drink white wine before kissing and smell lavender and cologne, before really getting to know each other in the light, between clean sheets, and take another bath just for fun, make love and bathe and drink and go to the hairdresser, go to the bathroom, caress the sheets and caress each other and love one another amongst the foam and the lavender and the toothbrushes before beginning to think of what they were going to do, of the child and the problems and the future; and all this as long as they did not stop, as long as the column kept on moving forward even though there was still no way of moving into third gear, still in second gear, but still moving. With his bumper scraping against the Simca, 404 leaned back in his seat, feeling the acceleration, felt he could accelerate without danger of running into the back of the Simca, and that the Simca could accelerate without danger of running into the back of the Beaulieu, and that the Caravelle was coming up behind and they were all going faster and faster, and now they move into third gear without the motor stuttering, and incredibly the stick slid into third and the engine began to purr and they accelerated even more, and in tenderness and amazement 404 sought out Dauphine’s eyes. Naturally, with so much acceleration the rows were no longer parallel, Dauphine had moved forward by almost a meter and 404 could only see her neck and profile; just when Dauphine was turning around to look for him and gestured in surprise at seeing the 404 was falling even further behind. With a reassuring smile 404 stepped brusquely on the accelerator but had to slow down almost immediately as he was about to shunt the Simca; he beeped angrily but lad in the Simca looked at him in the rear-view mirror and pointed with his left hand to the Beaulieu stuck to his front bumper. The Dauphine was three meters ahead, in line with the Simca, and the little girl in the 203, next to the 404, was waving her arms and showing him her doll. A red blotch on the right disconcerted the man in the 404; instead of the nuns’ 2HP or the soldier’s Volkswagen he saw a Chevrolet he didn’t recognise, and almost immediately the Chevrolet sprung forward followed by a Lancia and a Renault 8. On his left he was then neck and neck with an ID that began to pull away yard by yard, but before it gave way to a 403 the 404 managed to make out up ahead the 203 that was blocking his view of the Dauphine. The group was coming apart, it no longer existed, Taunus must have been at least twenty yards ahead, followed by the Dauphine; meanwhile the third row from the left was being held up as instead of the travelling salesman’s DKW the 404 could only see the back of an old black van, either a Citroën or a Peugeot. The cars were motoring along in third, gaining or losing ground depending on their lane, and the trees and houses at the side of the road were rushing by in the thick evening mist. Soon the red lights came on as each car followed the example of the one ahead and night fell swiftly. From time to time horns went off, the needles and the speedometre went up bit by bit, in some lanes they were doing seventy, in others sixty-five, in others sixty. In the push and pull of the traffic 404 still hoped he could catch up with Dauphine again, but with every passing minute he grew ever more convinced it was impossible, that the group had disbanded irrevocably, that the daily meetings would never come back, nor the little rituals, the war councils in Taunus’s car, the childrens’ laughter as they played with their cars, the image of the nun counting off her rosaries. When the Simca’s brake lights came on the 404 slowed down in an absurd gush of expectation, and barely having pulled on the handbrake he leapt out of the car and ran forward. Apart from the Simca and the Beaulieu (the Caravelle was somewhere off behind, but it was of little importance) he didn’t recognise any of the cars; through the various windscreens he was regarded with surprise and some degree of outrage by faces he had never seen. They were beeping their horns and 404 had to go back to his car; the young man in the Simca waved amicably, as if he understood, and pointed encouragingly in the direction of Paris. The column was setting off again, slowly at first and then as if the motorway had been cleared definitively. To the left of the 404 was a Taunus, and for a second the man in the 404 thought the group was coming back together again, that order was being restored, that they would be able to keep moving forward without destroying a thing. But this Taunus was green, and at the steering wheel there was a woman in smoky glasses staring dead ahead. Nothing else could be done other than get in step with the march, adapt oneself mechanically to the speed of the surrounding cars, avoid all thought. His leather jacket must have been in the soldier’s Volkswagen. Taunus had the novel he had read in the first few days. An almost empty bottle of lavander in the nuns’ 2HP. And right there, touching it occasionally with his right hand, he had the felt teddy bear Dauphine had given him as a mascot. He clung absurdly to the idea that at half-past nine they would distribute the rations, that they would have to visit the sick, mull over the situation with Taunus and the yokel from the Ariane; later would be night-time, would be Dauphine slipping stealthily into his car; stars or clouds, life. Yes, it had to be like that way, it couldn’t have come to an end. Perhaps the soldier would acquire a ration of water, which had been so scarce in the last few hours; in any case they could count on Porsche, as long as they could pay whatever he asked. And on the radio antenna the Red Cross flag was flapping wildly, and he was charging at eighty kilometres an hour towards the lights that were growing ever larger without anyone knowing for sure why such a rush, why this race in the night amongst so many unfamiliar cars where no-one knew anything about anyone else, where everyone was staring dead ahead, exclusively dead ahead.

*Sweltering motorists do not seem to have a history…As a reality a traffic jam is impressive, but it doesn’t say much.

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4 thoughts on “The Southern Highway – Julio Cortázar”

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