Saturday, March 01, 2014

The passenger

Call it an urban legend or what you will: here's a twice-told tale that only acquired its full impact years after the events it purports to describe.

The story emerged from a conversation in Paris between Julio Cortázar and an Argentine expatriate couple, Aldo Franceschini and Rosario Moreno. During the conversation, someone (apparently Cortázar) alluded to Mendoza in western Argentina; at the mention of the name Aldo Franceschini suddenly became excited and began to narrate an incident that had happened to him and his wife years before:
It was at the end of the 1950s, on the highway from Córdoba to Buenos Aires. Just at dusk the couple's car ran out of gas. Night fell with no sign of another vehicle passing by. They remained in the dark, smoking, waiting, hoping for someone to appear who could lend them some gas or give them a lift into the nearest town. Finally, around one in the morning, a car appeared. They signaled with a flashlight for it to stop and stood in the middle of the highway until it came skidding to a halt. Aldo approached the car in order to ask the driver for help, but even as he neared the window he detected something strange, an enigmatic fear that made him hesitate, an unease that seemed to emanate from the passenger seat, where the slumped form of a human being was outlined in the glow of the instrument panel. As Aldo explained that they had run out of gas the driver abruptly said that he had none to spare and quickly pulled away, leaving the couple stranded in the middle of the Pampean night. Oddly, as Aldo watched the car disappear he felt an inexplicable relief. A few hours later the couple were rescued by a passing trucker.
When Cortázar heard this tale it brought something else to mind and he quickly put two and two together. The motionless figure in the passenger seat, he suggested, was in fact a corpse.
The reason was economic. In the 1940s and '50s patients from Buenos Aires suffering from lung ailments like tuberculosis were frequently sent to the mountains around Córdoba, a climate considered drier and healthier than the capital. While they were there, naturally, some of them died, but returning their bodies to Buenos Aires entailed considerable expense in the payment of duties and taxes imposed by the city government. In order to skirt having to pay this tribute, the corpse would be propped up in the passenger seat and given a bit of hasty make-up, and the driver would then speed to the capital at seventy miles an hour. Upon arrival, the authorities having been notified of the death as if it had taken place locally, the required fees were avoided.
Cortázar added, perhaps facetiously, that at least two of the drivers in this clandestine business went on to become famous race car drivers.

The story above is translated loosely from the version told by Miguel Herráez in his biography of Cortázar. I have embellished it with a few details from Cortázar's own, longer treatment, "El copiloto silencioso" which can be read in Spanish online or in Un tal Lucas (Sudamericana, 1979) and in English, in Gregory Rabassa's translation, as "The Silent Copilot" in A Certain Lucas (Pantheon Books, 1984).

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