Sunday, February 07, 2010

Rendez-vous on the Riviera

Beneath a cerulean sky lie glinting golden sands and the shimmering Mediterranean. A sinuous, black corniche bakes in the Sun as it winds between pines and poplars to the semi-decadent splendour of the Cote d’Azur. The merest zephyr of a wind induces gentle whorls in the heat haze clinging to the landscape. We are equidistant in time from the mechanised slaughter of two world wars, in a period framed on one side by cold muddy trenches, and on the other by Hadean orange fireballs and genocidal concentration camps. Alive now is a generation born under imperial conflict, which will survive to see the growth of fascist totalitarianism. It is a generation haunted by the memory of mass tragedy, attempting to snatch some life in this brief respite, but developing a growing awareness of a new, and altogether more sinister threat.

A cobalt-blue, open-top Bugatti Type 35C travels at speed between the low walls of the coastal road, its primordial bark reverberating intermittently from the granite cliffs, the chassis rolling and dipping with elegant alacrity through the myriad hairpins and corkscrew bends. At its wheel is a tall, attractive, thirty year-old woman. Her hair is long and blonde, her skin delicately tanned, and her cheeks are flush with passion and adrenalin. She is Helle Nice, erstwhile model and dancer, and now racing driver and socialite. And she is racing to a rendez-vous in Monte Carlo with her new consort, Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

Two men sit brooding as they dine at a table in Monaco’s Hotel de Paris. One of these men is Enzo Ferrari, the nascent Godfather of Formula One. His hair is swept back from a broad, square forehead, hinting at the burgeoning ambitions which circle within. His eyes are hooded, and he conceals as many secrets as he harbours aspirations. The other man is driving genius Tazio Nuvolari, a neat but diminutive character, with a charismatically extended chin. Tazio’s body-language is undemonstrative, but his eyes twinkle with percipience and audacity.

Tazio breaks the silence. “Steak was good,” he asserts without inflection, pushing his plate to one side. Ferrari nods his assent, chewing on the last mouthful of his duck a l’orange.

“So Enzo,” asks Tazio, sipping on a glass of red wine, “if a man dies in a Scuderia Ferrari Alfa, and his death is undoubtedly caused by a mechanical failure, do you not feel guilt? Do you not feel that you have robbed a wife of her dearest love, a son and a daughter of the father they idolised?”

Enzo’s forehead creases with momentary but suppressed irritation, and he glances out the window, his eyes darting back and forth in thought. He carefully wipes his lips on a napkin before responding. “Guilt? Should I feel guilt for giving a man the opportunity to pursue his dreams until he catches them and makes them real? Are you suggesting that I would deliberately cause a man’s death?”

“No, of course I am not. But in the absence of engineering perfection, mechanical failures are inevitable, are they not?”

“Yes, but these failures are as unpredictable as they are inevitable,” declares Enzo with a shrug. “Should I then feel guilt at providence itself? Would you not agree that providence is within God’s remit alone?”

“Ummm, what one man calls providence is often under another man’s control, but yes, ultimately I suppose I have to concede that.”

“Well, then it follows that if I felt guilt at the operation of providence, I would be presuming to wrest responsibility from the hands of the Almighty himself. Now, I am no cardinal or pontiff, Tazio, and my grasp of theology is poor, but as I understand it, God Does Not Share Responsibility.”

A shallow smile creeps like metal fatigue across Enzo’s lips. “But let me ask you something, Tazio. Let us agree that your virtuoso gifts in a racing car are greater than those of any mortal man, and let us consider that when other men strive to beat you on the racetrack, they therefore push themselves to the very limit of their abilities. If such a man’s will-to-win transcends his judgement, then is it not likely that he will crash attempting to match you? If, in a vain attempt to beat the Great Tazio Nuvolari, he thence perishes within a tangled mass of steel and rubber by the roadside, are you not, perhaps indirectly, responsible for that man’s death? Do you not have his blood on your hands, the tears of his widow and children on your conscience?”

Tazio glances down at his glass of wine, and shifts uncomfortably in his chair. “Yes, it’s a thought.”

“Well, then.” For a brief moment, Enzo Ferrari holds Nuvolari’s eyes intently, assessing his reaction. Reciprocal respect and mutual suspicion reflects across the table, until Ferrari turns aside and snaps his fingers. “Garcon!”

To be continued...

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