The riddle, the dream, the journey—these archetypal themes are the soul of storytelling. Creating a first-person narrator allows Antonio Tabucchi to use the long-winded and self-pitying style of the barroom epic. Incorporating Proust into the story thickens up the diction, along with allusions to Harper’s Bazaar and Le Figaro, and the French phrases add a touch of class. Geographical references play a part, too. The narrator meets Miriam at Chez Albert, “near the Porte Saint-Denis [in Paris], not exactly a stamping ground for countesses,” and his vintage car shop is on the “fashionable Avenue Foch.” The evocative place-names along the way from Biarritz to San Sebastián enrich the narrative texture, ground the dream on solid earth, and carry exotic associations for many readers, as do such proper names as Quai d’Anjou, Pau, and Hôtel d’Angleterre.
A pleasing feature of the narrator’s tale is his familiarity with classic cars, and their names trip fondly off his tongue. Besides the star of the show, Miriam’s 1927 Bugatti Royale coupé de ville and the sinister bright red 1922 Lambda, there are Delages, Aston Martins, a Hispano-Suiza, an Isotta Fraschini, and a 1922 Fiat Mefistofele. Cars are sexy: Albert says of the Bugatti that “it has something of a woman’s body about it, a woman lying on her back with her legs out in front of her.” The narrator’s paean is positively erotic: “A Bugatti Royale on its haunches, climbing a slight incline, with fenders flared, ready to gather speed and intoxication, with power throbbing behind a fabulous radiator grille and, atop it, an elephant with upraised trunk.” Genuine romantic love, not just sexual desire, is “the kind that blazes up inside and breaks out and spins like a motor while the wheels speed over the ground.” By combining sex and fast cars in a mysterious story of illicit love and violence on the highways of the glamorous French-Spanish coast, Tabucchi strikes a note that rings loud in modern culture.