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I once read a short story in an anthology about someone traveling by car, then gets stuck in a traffic jam. There is no obvious reason for the traffic jam, and there are no reports in the radio about it.

As the traffic jam continues for hours and hours, people in the cars start chatting, exchanging ideas, trading beverages and food, getting to know each other more or less. The traffic jam extends into days, and eventually groups start to build, negotiate with other groups, and scouts are sent to nearby farms, but get chased away for unknown reasons. Still nobody knows what causes this traffic jam and why it does not dissolve. Among other small stories, there is also a love story evolving.

Then, after a number of days, all of a sudden, traffic starts to move again. Everyone jumps back to their cars and the traffic jam dissolves too quickly for people to exchange any phone numbers, so friendships made during the traffic jams get lost, even the loving couple loses contact and everything that happened during those days appears to vanish in meaninglessness.

I think this story is originally in Spanish or Portuguese, but not sure. I believe I've read this in the early 1980s, and as far as I remember, it was in a scifi anthology that wasn't much older, but the story itself could of course be several years older.

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    Is this really sci-fi? Mar 24 at 0:12
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    Definitely not it, but there was an episode of Doctor Who (Gridlock: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gridlock_(Doctor_Who) that explored this idea. It was a really fun episode to watch.
    – phyrfox
    Mar 24 at 3:08
  • @DJClayworth It’s fantastic literature, of which sci-fi is one, and I think it’s sometimes hard to draw a line between them. Both are about a „what if“ question. I think this could be sci-fi, as the reason for the enormous traffic jam must be out of this world….
    – not2savvy
    Mar 24 at 8:05
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    @DJClayworth It is listed in the ISFDB which is a good (but not conclusive) indication, and although it is not really sci-fi it clearly has fantasy elements, for example the time distortion making the jam take months to unravel Mar 24 at 8:14
  • Agreed this doesn't need to be fiction at all, Google tells me the longest traffic jam lasted for 10 days total and some people report being stuck in it for 5 days (which I assume was just to get to the nearest exit, because who would willingly drive past an exit if you're only moving at 1km/day??). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_National_Highway_110_traffic_jam There were apparently vendors who put their wares on bicycles and rode around selling food. Mar 24 at 22:50

2 Answers 2

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This sounds like "La autopista del sur" (The Southern Highway"), a short story by the Argentine author Julio Cortazar first published in 1966, which describes the story of a vast traffic jam on the road between Fontainebleu and Paris, which lasts for days, or possibly even months. A translation is available here.

A summary can be read here:

The tale tells of a great traffic jam on the highway between Fontainebleau and Paris. It was a Sunday afternoon in which it was not possible to advance because in a part of the road an accident must have happened and as the hours passed, the travelers got to know each other... Some lowered themselves to stretch their legs and when they returned they brought disturbing and almost always false news of the reasons for the strike. It was a collision between two cars: Three dead and an injured child, or the collision of a Fiat 1500 with an Austin full of tourists, or the overturning of a coach with passengers from the Copenhagen plane. It was all assumptions...

At dusk the column made its first major advance of just 40 meters. Soon food and water ran out, and although everyone helped each other, they had to ration everything to the maximum. Most slept in cars, others in the grass on the side of the highway. Very little progress was made in the morning... Some got sick and, due to the worsening weather, others left, abandoning their car; an old woman died leaving her husband without resignation and another man committed suicide. In general, the story abounds in descriptions of how terrifying human behavior can be in an extreme situation. When they finally began to move, the characters return to their normal lives forgetting almost all the people they came to know with the desire to eat, drink water.

If you read it in an anthology in the 1980s, it was probably "The World of the Short Story: A Twentieth Century Collection", published in 1986.

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    One wonders if this short story inspired Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 movie "Weekend." Mar 23 at 18:13
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    According to Cortazar it was "an indirect inspiration" for the movie, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weekend_(1967_film) Mar 23 at 18:15
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    It's an interesting detail that the exact amount of time spent in this traffic jam is not apparent in the story. While I thought it was many days or maybe two or three weeks, there's is a link to a video in a footnote of your reference where the author himself is said to speak of months. However, I don't actually see how it could be months.
    – not2savvy
    Mar 23 at 19:01
  • I read it in German in Phantastische Aussichten (Suhrkamp 1985) (engl.: Fantastic Prospects).
    – not2savvy
    Mar 23 at 19:04
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    @not2savvy"Fantastic Prospects" was the other possibility, I suggested the English version because it is distributed more widely, but I got it wrong :( On how long the traffice jam lasted, there aren't many clues in the story because the characters "stopped watching the clock". The girl from the Dauphine and the engineer were having a baby, which is consistent with some months passing Mar 23 at 19:09
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I guess the story is "La autopista del sur" from Argentine writer Julio Cortazar: Wiki

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  • You're absoutely right. Wow, that was fast! Thank you!
    – not2savvy
    Mar 23 at 16:06
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    In general, when you post an answer, it's not a bad idea to add supporting material, such as a cut/paste of the plot summary like @ClaraDiazSanchez did. Links can go bad, and when they do, an answer like yours doesn't include accessible data for why it was the right answer. Mar 23 at 16:50

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