Mys­tery be­hind plane dis­as­ter

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Adrien Bosc Ser­pent’s Tail, £12.99 Re­view by Les­ley McDow­ell Adrien Bosc is at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Book Fes­ti­val on Satur­day Au­gust 13

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

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