Mystery behind plane disaster
IN THE wee small hours of October 28th, 1949, a plane flying from Paris to New York came down in the Azores. Its passengers included Marcel Cerdan, a boxer on his way to wrest his heavyweight title back from Jake LaMotta, who’d taken it earlier that year. He was also Edith Piaf’s lover.
Ginette Neveu was a world-renowned violinist, and one of her fans would kill herself when she read the news of the terrible crash with no survivors. Walt Disney’s right-hand man, Kay Kamen, who was about to be elbowed out of further deals with his boss, was also onboard.
The crash has been attributed to pilot error. But radio control recorded the pilot coming in to land on the narrow airstrip on the island of Santa Maria with his last words, “I have the field in sight!”. Then it disappeared and the wreckage of the plane was eventually found five miles away, crashed into the side of a mountain. What on earth had happened in those final few moments to throw the pilot off course?
Adrien Bosc isn’t so much interested in solving a mystery, however, as he is in the lives of those who disappeared. The plane was a Lockheed Constellation, designed originally by the film producer and millionaire Howard Hughes. It had had some problems but technological difficulties were ruled out as the cause of the crash. Hughes’s shadowy presence behind this plane is what intrigues Bosc, along with the hint of glamour and ambition that characterises so many of the passenger list, too. For example, Amelie Ringler was another émigré, hoping to make a better life in the New World working for her rich godmother, Elsa Triolet, who would become famous as the ‘queen of nylon production.’
Bosc’s novel reads, deliberately, like non-fiction. He revels in factual detail, building up lists such as birthplaces, types of manufacture, historical movements, which contrast all the more powerfully with such a seemingly random and inexplicable outcome. The only conclusion we can be sure of is the passengers’ deaths, although even that was uncertain at first, with initial reports of the crash reporting survivors. Remains were found intact, like Ginette’s violin and bow, although the violin itself created something of a mystery when it was traced to an old shepherd in the mountain. Searchers at first thought it looked too ancient to belong to Ginette.
As Bosc knows, though, we’re not very happy with ‘random’ tragedies. He muses on the power of fate – did Edith Piaf really have a sixth sense about the crash, changing her mind at the last minute, after she’d urged her lover to hurry to see her in New York and take the plane instead of the boat? There’s even a hint of something murderous at work: both La Motta, the Mafia-backed champion, and Disney himself, had something to gain by the deaths of Cerdan and Kamen. It’s easy to see how conspiracy theories come about when murky forces are at work, and we want an explanation.
Bosc also inserts himself into the story, as a kind of investigative journalist searching for the history behind each passenger. He traces the son of one, Ernest Lowenstein, who had just divorced his wife but was thinking better of it and flying back to New York to reconcile with her instead. He visits the site of the crash, and pays homage at the monument erected to honour the deaths.
But is it a novel? What suppositions does Bosc make that a historian or biographer cannot? Bosc obeys non-fiction rules and eschews novelistic ones. He doesn’t use his imagination to fill in the gaps, where a novelist might. He sticks to the ‘knowables’, and denies what the novel grasps for: a filling-up of the holes in the story. The portraits of the passengers are factual; he doesn’t imagine what’s going on in their heads, or what conversations they might have had. It shouldn’t work, but it does. This is a philosophical, often moving tale that will make you ponder the nature of our existence.
This is a moving tale that will make you ponder the nature of existence