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I really should hate this book. (if you are not interested in my philosophical thoughts about the art of story — and I certainly don’t blame you — the cat pictures start at the end of this book review. Feel free to skip ahead.)

But I love it.

Which is strange, considering that it’s written by my least favorite kind of author. (A guy with a beard).

And it’s translated from French. (Doesn’t matter. You can always still hear the French fondness for wind-baggery.)

And it’s about the most loathsome kind of travel. (It’s  a stunt, in that the book describes a voyage on the autoroute from Paris to Marseilles that took 33 days because the travelers stopped at each and every rest stop, 65 in all, camping overnight in every other one. It was written in 1982 and just published in English in 2007.)

And the writer is actually South American. (Magical realism and a swarthy preoccupation with sex and bodies and manly things, and you can read the whole damn French book and never get any kind of impression about what it’s like to be in a damn French rest stop on the damn French autoroute, although you get quite a load of the author’s magical thinking and his swarthy preoccupation with sex and bodies and manly stuff.)

But I love it. And I’ve finished up my latest Commonplace Book with lots of copies of some of my favorite pages, which is why I keep a Commonplace Book in the first place. By copying out passages written in this florid, wifty, so-not-me style, I feel I get an inside-out look at the way this writer’s mind works. It loosens me up, ingrains a whole new pace of thought, word flow, and story-telling structure. Julio Cortazar is an extravagant writer, and he gives himself permission to fling images and associations and feelings in any direction, which is a bit of a thrill to witness especially since I do not have that same sense of freedom.

Because of the fluid nature of the narrative of this book I don’t have any firm concept of the journey itself, but I realized early on that if I was going to enjoy the ride I’d have to give up trying to make sense of this voyage as a linear trip from There to Here(a concession I never make easily). And the chapters (if I may be so bold to call the numerous intervals in the text “chapters”) had delightful headings.

Here’s a sample:

Where the Travelers Wonder if Absolute Solitude is Possible. Examples Proving It’s Not:

-Expected and Inevitable Visitors

-Unexplained visitors

-Conversation and gifts

p. 73

Where the Reader Shall Agree That a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

p. 181

Where Things Get Worse

p. 193

Where Finally, And It Was About Time, We Speak of Trucks, Which Haven’t Stopped going By Since The Beginning, and Investigate Their Not Always Obvious Reasons for Being and  for Being There

p. 223

Where la Osita Speaks to El Lobo and It All Gets Said Forever

p. 283

The Metamorphosis of Dreams on the Freeway

p. 293

Now, bear with me, while I tell you the funniest part of this book, which gave me a real laugh out loud moment:  as I noted, the book was originally written in French for a French-reading readership…by a Spanish-speaking Argentine fellow with a beard. So the joke is a bit complicated but here goes.

True story: There was a native Spainsh-speaking UNESCO interpreter translating some French windbag at some interminable UNESCO conference into Spanish. And the French windbag goes, “Comme disait feu le President Roosevelt, rien n’est a craindre hormisla crainte elle-meme.”

Yes, all us Americans can probably already guess what the French windbag was saying. He said, “As the late President Roosevelt said, we’ve nothing to fear but fear itself.”

However, the poor Spanish translator, probably numbed by the Mistral that was coming from the French windbag, had a lapse. When he translated those august words of our revered 32rd President, he said: Como decia con ardor el presidente Roosevelt, el miedo a las hormigaslo crean ellas mismas.”

[Note that I've put the two crucial words, hormis and hormigas, in bold. They sound alike, but mean vastly different things in French and Spanish. Because:]

This is actually what the Spanish translator said: As President Roosevelt so ardently said, the fear of ants is created by ants themselves.”

This is what I think is funny. So funny that I’m laughing even as I type this, and I’ve thought of this hormis/hormigas tale over and over for the past two weeks.

So here’s the cat picture:

For those of you have inquired about the renegade Bibs, I want you to know that his head is healing up fine (and I was sure he’d be bald the rest of his life — that was a really nasty head wound) and here his is, in the brief instance of sunshine that we’ve had this past week, lunging in his bachelor pad (the hutch in the backyard):

And do you all remember when I told you all The Truth About Publishing, Pat Two (blog post Feb. 21, 2011) in which I showed you this piece of public art at Madison Square Park in Manhattan:

which is made of light bulbs:

Remember? Well today is your lucky day, faithful blog readers. Because faithful blog reader Melinda happened to be in Madison Square Park a week after I took these pictures and took this picture on the pen-ultimate night of this installation:

Everybody say Ahhhhhhhhh.

(Did you laugh out loud at the French/Spanish ants story? Have you laughed out loud lately? Please share — we all need a laugh today.)

7 comments to Fellow Traveler

  • Sallyann

    Funny you should ask. It reminded me that there was a day last week when something tickled my funny bone so much, that when I thought of the belly laughing incident later in the day I went into speels of laughter all over again. But heaven help me as I sit here now, I can not remember what caused all the laughter. But does it really matter? What is left is the feeling of spent laughter which is almost as good.
    I have learned over the years that laughter of any kind is one of the greatest gifts we can obtain and that even the memory of the laughter is good for the soul.
    I have been remembering loved ones who have died in recent years. Do you know the two things I remember most about them? Their eyes and their laughter. Their laughter still echoes through my mind and brings them back to life in renewed wholeness in my mind. It is a wonderous thing.

  • Deborah

    The fear of ants story brought a smile rather than laughter, but it is the type of story & smile that will linger — recursive.

    I generally sign my Christmas cards “Wishing you a new year filled with beauty, love, and laughter.” All the good memories seem to include at least one of those things.

    Nice to see that lightbulb sculpture all lit up. I’d been thinking about your initial post of it recently because a similar sculpture went on display here recently, but it used glass beakers or flasks (used in a lab) rather than light bulbs. Now that I see the bulbs lit, I realize the local sculpture differs more than I’d originally thought.

    And it’s nice to see Bibs all squinty-eyed with pleasure & looking so healthy and whole. One of the things I enjoyed in “A Small Furry Prayer,” which you mentioned in a post last year, is learning that dogs can laugh. Do cats?

  • Deborah

    P.S. The chapter headings have a very Winnie The Pooh-ish sound to them.

  • Definitely laughed at the ants — and it was my second session of laughing out loud this morning — check out the silly videos at Pawcurious for April Fools…..


    I’ve found a bunch of smile-worthy (if not laugh-out-loud) videos lately — embedded in my blog….

  • Nadine

    I tried and tried for years to like South American literature because I’m a with-it kind of gal, but it’s just not my taste. My last try was Junot Diaz’s novel, who I know is Dominican but the mix of superstition and all those accent marks were much too distracting. I gave up after the about 50 pages.

    I saw something on Tosh.0 (TV show on Comedy Central) that made me laugh out loud. It was last year when he had a segment called “Stoned Tweets” or something. Someone had posted a thought: I wonder what zoos are like in Africa. Do you think they’re full of regular animals like cows and dogs and goats and horses?

    It made me and my husband laugh out loud. It made me chuckle for days whenever I thought about it.

  • Rachel

    Recently at a library book sale I noticed the shelf marked *foreign language* and started laughing out loud. If you happen to speak any of the languages shelved there, if you are looking for a book in one of those languages, then it is NOT FOREIGN TO YOU. I tried to explain my sudden insight about this to the volunteer, but apparently it was beyond her pay grade.

  • Susie

    Your ant quote made me laugh out loud and is worth repeating. Ya know, a famous quote to add to a letter to someone or to put in a blog article about…bravery? lol

    This photos makes me laugh every time I see it….ya know, cats can’t resist sitting in a box left out. I didn’t know they did this outside, tho’. And as a family of 3 adults, all getting hard-of-hearing, we regularly say things that another of us didn’t quite hear. So we get really laughing (I sometimes end up on the floor-the guys are too British to laugh that hard) over the mis-heard words. Can’t think of an example, but it happens several times a week…..

    Thank you for the update with photo of Bibs. He’s become quite the handsome fellow under your kind care! He looks like he appreciates his new home. (as a cat person, you know that some of them don’t…)

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