Constellation by Adrien Bosc review: mining wreckage of an air crash
An engaging mix of reportage, fiction and historical writing, the story of a fatal flight filled with stars
Edith Piaf convinces her lover, the Casablanca boxer Marcel Cerdan, to meet her in the US earlier than planned. The painter Bernard Boutet de Monvel relinquishes his seat on a plane to an actress with too much luggage. An apprentice violin-maker delays his passage to New York. A couple on their honeymoon get bumped off a flight for a prestigious passenger.
The element of chance in our survival on earth is at the core of Adrien Bosc’s slight but ambitious debut novel, Constellation. First published in France in 2014, where it won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie Française, William Wood’s English translation is published this month by Serpent’s Tail.
An engaging mix of reportage, fiction and historical writing, Constellation tells the story of the final flight of Air France F-BAZN, a Lockheed Constellation en route from Paris Orly to New York that crashed into Mount Redondo in the Azores on October 27th, 1949, with no survivors.
The interconnectedness of collective tragedy is examined by Bosc, known in French literary circles as the founder of Éditions du sous-sol and the review magazines Desports and Feuilleton. The Avignon author looks at the logistics of tragedy – the hunt for the wreckage, the initial hope that there might be survivors, the difficulty in identifying the bodies – but also seeks to give a voice to each of the 48 victims.
F-BAZN was known as “the airplane to the stars”, and a number of high profile passengers were on board as it took off for its overnight journey to New York: Cerdan; his manager, Jo Longman; the virtuoso violinist Ginette Neveu; the head of Disney merchandising, Kay Kamen. In the wake of the tragedy, the media focused their attention on these individuals. Bosc, admirably, seeks to tell the other stories. He is a keen information gatherer, meticulous in his attention to details.
From the passenger who starts reading Moby-Dick as the flight takes off, “which he bought the previous day at the Gaillard bookstore on the boulevard Raspail”, to a scene that imagines the perplexed pilots as they descend into undeclared bad weather over Santa Maria, Bosc succeeds in bringing to life a story that had been consigned to the past.
Shannon airportThrough letters, newspaper cuttings and philosophical musings on everything from violin making to destiny, we come to inhabit the victims’ worlds, learning not just how they died, but also how they lived. The crew’s nickname for Shannon and its duty-free offering was “Whiskey Airport”; the plane’s misanthropic pilot made a fatal decision to refuel in the Azores; Air France callously celebrated its 2,000th transatlantic flight “with great pomp” a few weeks after the crash.
Bosc evokes the whiff of celebrity that clings to disasters of this ilk. His tone switches easily from reporter to gossip columnist. There is the backdrop of Cerdan’s upcoming rematch with the Bronx Bull, Jake LaMotta, and his tempestuous affair with Piaf.
Elsewhere we learn that Prince Aly Khan of Pakistan, husband of Rita Hayworth, narrowly escaped one aercraft accident before rushing off to board another plane. The human tendency to persist with activities that endanger our lives is a recurring theme. A fortune teller warns Cerdan not to fly on a particular day. He ignores her advice but wears his lucky blue suit as an amulet. Bosc reminds us that his story is as old as the dawn: “The lesson of Cassandra is that the more specifically an oracle speaks, the less likely she is [to be] listened to.”
Contrived connectionsSometimes the connections feel contrived or insignificant – the appearance of the conductor John Barbirolli, how the author’s birthday leads to his obsession with dates – and the prose can be repetitive and clichéd, which is perhaps a fault of the translation. There are a notable number of “ineluctable” moments, people “cool their heels”, we meet “the cream of the Paris sporting world” and are offered a somewhat trite imagining of “the bleak life of a suburban mother”.
The language is grandiose in parts, which jars with the reportage style. The author tells us of his “sense of taking part in a mimetic pilgrimage, no doubt grotesque, driven by a maniacal concern with synchrony”. The mix of passengers on board, from the wealthy to the famous to the Basque shepherds off to earn their fortune, is “a Tower of Babel . . . A precipitate of the whole world, whose chemical formula might be unpacked as follows.”
Constellation is at its most engaging when it pares itself back and focuses on the facts. “Near the corpse of a young woman, her crimson dress burned at the armholes, lies an open violin case containing a broken bow.” French officers mistakenly identify the body. It is Bosc who emerges as the real investigator – his relentless mining of a disaster leaves no stone unturned.