Adrien Bosc’s prize-winning book, Constellation, is described as a novel solely because the author has imagined the backstories of the 48 passengers who went down with the plane in 1949. All of those lives are based on actual information—as are details of the crash of Air France’s Lockheed Constellation, made famous because of some of its celebrated passengers and the fact that the plane was another one of Howard Hughes’ dream aircraft. The F-BAZN took off from Orly Airport on October 27th and changed its original flight pattern because of weather conditions. The crash was on a mountain, as the plane approached Santa Maria, in the Azores, for refueling. At the time, the accident was one of commercial aircraft’s major disasters. Bosc’s construction of a novel around the crash is something close to a miracle, an explosion of the writer’s own remarkable imagination. Reading the novel is unlike any other narrative you will ever encounter. No wonder that the book has been a bestseller in France, where readers still possess a modicum of sophistication.
The two most famous passengers were Marcel Cerdan, the boxer, and Ginette Neveu, the violinist, who had been a musical prodigy. Cerdan (who a year earlier had been “the newly crowned middle-weight boxing champion of the world”) was returning to America “to regain his title, now in the hands of Jake LaMotta, the Bronx Bull.” He was also Edith Piaf’s lover. Neveu, who was 23 years old, was “also setting off to conquer America,” traveling with a Stradivarius and a second priceless violin, which would both be lost in the crash. The F-BAZN was called the “Airplane of the Stars,” with four Wright engines. The crew was composed of eleven members; the other thirty-seven were an eclectic group of passengers from different nationalities and backgrounds.
Although we know that the plane will crash, that tragic incident does not come at the end of the story but barely a sixth of the way in. The plane had slammed into Mount Redondo on a near-by island. “The slopes of Redondo are strewn with jewels, banknotes, gutted trunks vomiting their contents, and stray objects of value, separated from their owners and overlooked by the looters.” The looters had been spotted by search planes and initially been taken for survivors. By the time the rescue party could limb up the mountain, the looters were long gone. Bosc provides depressing details, such as the discovery of one of Neveu’s violin cases, empty except for a broken bow. A watch with the initials M and C strapped to a body permitted the identification of the famous boxer. Other bodies were much more difficult to identify, and since this was an era prior to black boxes, the rescuers were uncertain why the plane had crashed.
Bosc himself enters the narrative a couple of times, searching for descendants of those killed in the crash and eventually visiting the site of the catastrophe, though this is decades later. His details of families’ and friends’ reactions to the loss of someone they knew or were related to are fascinating. Piaf for some time denied that her lover had died: “I am certain that Marcel is alive and waiting for me…. It’s the first time I’ve fallen in love, and, whoosh, it’s all whisked away.” Later, she would participate in séances, attempting to make contact with Cerdan. Others, when shown the bodies of their loved ones, would refuse to identify them. A number of the bodies—too burned to be properly identified—were “grouped together in a Tomb of the Unknown Passenger.” Cerdan’s funeral was such an event that the flowers taken to the cemetery filled nearly fifty taxis. There is also the curious story of one of Neveu’s fans who took her own life when she learned of the violinist’s death. “To the casualty list was added the name of the woman henceforth known as ‘the forty-ninth victim of the Constellation.’”
Determined to figure out the cause of the tragedy (pilot error was ruled out), Air France re-enacted the flight with an identical plane. As that second plane approached the airstrip on Santa Maria, it lost contact with the radio transmission, intended to guide it to a safe landing. Bosc observes, “Faulty functioning of the radio beacon due to interference from the Seville transmitter now seems the likeliest cause of the accident.” The weather permitted little visibility.
I am in awe of Adrian Bosc’s incredible reconstruction of the Constellation’s flight, crash, and its impact on close friends and family of the victims. Even more amazing are the stories of the passengers, including five Basque shepherds, who had contracted with various employers spread across the United States. All expected to work on American soil for ten years, save their money, and then return to their homeland. There’s also the backstory of Kay and Kitty Kaman who had become filthy rich because of Kaman’s insights into Disney’s growing popularity in Hollywood. He inked the franchise on all merchandise related to Disney’s films. As you might expect, because of the cost of flying at the time, many of the other passengers were also businessmen. And, yes, there are a couple of stories of would-be passengers who at the last minute altered their plans (or had them altered for them) and missed the disastrous flight.
A tragic story, to be certain, incredibly told and seamlessly translated by Willard Wood.
Adrien Bosc: Constellation
Trans. by Willard Wood
Other Press, 171 pp., $15.95