An infamous 1949 plane crash is the inspiration for this fascinating debut, writes Roger Cox
Constellation by Adrien Bosc | Serpent’s Tail, 171pp, £12.99
You could, if you felt so inclined, spend a lot of time arguing over how precisely to categorise this debut book by French writer and editor Adrien Bosc. In an author’s note preceding the text, Bosc insists that “Constellation is unequivocally a novel, a truelife novel to probe the fiction at the heart of our lives”. And if the author says it’s a novel, well, then it must be one, in this case a fictionalised account of a real event – the air disaster of 27 October 1949 when an Air France plane, a Lockheed Constellation flying from Paris to New York, crashed into a mountainside in the Azores, killing all of its 48 passengers and crew.
Among the deceased were Edith Piaf’s lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan; the violin virtuoso Ginette Neveu; Kay Kamen, the man who sold Walt Disney on the idea of merchandising; five Basque shepherds emigrating to America; and a poor textile worker called Amelie Ringler, on the way to claim a life-changing inheritance. Bosc tells us their stories in turn, bringing them vividly to life as he does so, yet it’s difficult to think of any instances in which the author has attempted to imagine their inner lives. As he puts it himself: “The fiction of an omniscient narrator, slipping into the victims’ clothes as you might change clothes in a small theatre of the period, is not proposed. The description of the flight, the arrangement of the characters within the whole as represented by the plane is the only viewpoint, the only theatricality.”
For a novel, then, Constellation has a good deal in common with literary non-fiction, not only in its refusal to “slip into the victims’ clothes” but also the way in which the author inserts his own first person accounts of researching the book into the narrative. Towards the end, for example, we hear about his “inevitable” pilgrimage to the crash site, where there is “a stone erected by the inhabitants of the [nearby] village in honour of the forty-eight victims of Air France’s F-BAZN”. Furthermore, there is an attention to detail in the writing – dates, times, altitudes and airspeeds are always meticulously recorded – that is impressive verging on obsessional.
The way in which Bosc has “fictionalised” the events of 27 October 1949, then, is not so much an act of imaginative writing as an act of imaginative editing, a process of carefully assembling thousands of fragments of information to create a composite image that is almost entirely derivative and yet at the at same time entirely original. To say too much here about the way in which Bosc constructs his great mosaic would be to spoil others’ enjoyment of it, but suffice to say that it is ingeniously done, forcing the reader to think and think hard about the mysterious workings of fate.
In one of his authorial interjections, Bosc admits that “These last two years, I have believed more than is reasonable in signs, in lucky stars” and on numerous occasions he draws our attention to strange coincidences surrounding the crash: Marcel Ceran had been warned to avoid flying by a famous fortune-teller who read his palm; the plane that re-flew the route of F-BAZAN looking for clues as to what happened was eventually scrapped on 27 October 1971; when a fan of Neveu’s committed suicide following the crash, she was described by the press as the 49th victim of the 1949 disaster.
Describing how Neveu’s good friend, the British singer Kathleen Ferrier, happened to be giving a recital in Paris at exactly the same time as Neveu’s body was returned to France, Bosc writes: “A strained coincidence or the workings of fate, who is to say, and yet the game of temporal co-occurrences yields the most astonishing associations”. It does indeed.
• Adrien Bosc, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 13 August