15 January 2017

Bernard Chambaz: À tombeau ouvert (2016)

The title page of this book is interesting in itself, being inscribed by its author Bernard Chambaz to the sports writer for Libération, Jean-Louis Le Touzet in May 2016 (the official publication being 24 August 2016). Chambaz quotes Malcolm de Chazal here:

'une auto
n'ira jamais
aussi vite
que la route':

('a car
will never go
as fast
as the road' (or route)).

À tombeau ouvert is an expression meaning something like 'at breakneck speed', which is appropriate to the subject matter of the book, which is essentially a quirky biography of the Brazilain racing driver Aryton Senna. The first line of the back cover notes asks 'Oú étiez-vous le 1er mai 1994 ?', much as many people used to ask where they were at the time of John F. Kennedy's assassination,* or more recently (and within most people's living memory), where they were at the time of the attack on the Twin Towers.

So for many, particularly of course those people who follow the sport, the day the hero Aryton Senna – compared to Achilles by Chambaz – lost control of his car and died in Imola, Italy, was a very significant, very tragic, event. I mentioned the word 'quirky' above because Chambaz doesn't make this a straight biography, he weaves in and out of the story line, including facts about the deaths of other people – mainly but by no means exclusively racing drivers like Senna – who died in cars.

During one of his races in England, for instance, Senna was watched by Diana, Princess of Wales, who of course died in a car crash three years after Senna's death. More significantly for Chambaz, his sixteen-year-old son Martin died in Wales in a car accident in 1992. Coincidences such as these are part of the nature of the book.

Another coincidence is the number 42, which frequently follows (we could even say haunts) Senna. Wikipedia tells me many things about 42 – the vast majority of which I would never have wanted to know – although it is interesting to learn that Lewis Carroll was fascinated by the number 42. Chambaz doesn't mention this fact, and there's no reason why he should, although Chambaz and Wikipedia both state that the word is associated with death in Japan. But we have to go to Chambaz to learn that 42 is banned on number plates in Japan.

* Although JFK isn't specifically mentioned in this book, he of course died in a car too, and his brother Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated five year later: at the age of 42. (This is the kind of book that leads you to make such links.)

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