constellation-cover-260x390Constellation is Adrien Bosc’s first novel. It’s based on the true story of the October 28, 1949, crash of the Air France F-BAZN Lockheed Constellation passenger airplane. More than a simple re-telling of the event, Bosc connects the dots of chance decisions and unusual incidents that occurred before and after the accident. While he chillingly recreates the tragedy, he builds a theme of coincidence.

One of the passengers on the Constellation was Marcel Cerdan, the French middle-weight world boxing champion. He was taking the Paris-to-New-York flight to recapture his title at Madison Square Garden in a rematch with Jake LaMotta, a.k.a. the Bronx Bull. Cerdan originally was scheduled on a later flight, but Cerdan’s lover, the famous French singer Edith Piaf, begged him to move up his date of departure, so they could spend more time together in New York. Giving priority seating to the celebrity’s last-minute reservation, which included his manager Jo Longman and friend Paul Genser, Air France bumped a newlywed couple returning from their honeymoon and a woman. Lucky for them. The plane crashed into a mountain while attempting to land at the Santa Maria airport in the Azores, an archipelago of islands west of Portugal.  None of the 37 passengers or 11 crew members survived.

Bosc delves into the lives of other passengers and their reasons for flying, including Ginette Neveu, a famous French violin virtuoso, scheduled to go on tour in America. A violin apprentice, who helped maintain her Stradivarius violin, was to accompany her, but Neveu asked him to delay his departure. He traded in his plane ticket for a trans-Atlantic crossing on an ocean liner. (The Stradivarius was never recovered from the wreckage.) Air travel in the 1940’s was a luxury, but a young spool operator in a textile mill was on the flight. Her wealthy godmother in Detroit had made her the sole heir to her estate and purchased the girl’s ticket on the doomed flight, which she otherwise would not have been able to afford. On October 26, a successful artist on a Paris-to-New-York flight gave his seat to an actress, who had too much luggage. He got transferred to the October 27 Air France F-BAZN flight. Bosc also writes about Kay Kamen, the merchandising genius behind Disney products, including the Mickey Mouse watch. He was on the flight not out of chance, but the dots rather suggest an unusual fate. Disney wanted to disengage from Kamen’s company and bring the merchandising business in-house.

The story is powerful, building on curiosity and dread all the way to the investigation into why the plane went off course. As each page is turned, there’s a stunning coming-together of Bosc’s information, with theory and conjecture, that’s carefully drawing a constellation of people and how they came to board — or be affected by — the flight. The story does have its flaws, but they don’t interfere with the enticement of this brief story. One is the author’s out-of-the-blue, awkward insertion of his voice midway through the book, and another is occasional references to places and people that aren’t clarified. “A vast confluence of causes determines the most unlikely result. Forty-eight people, forty-eight agents of uncertainty enfolded within a series of innumerable reasons, fate is always a question of perspective,” Bosc writes.

Marcel Cerdan visited a fortune-teller in Paris in early October. She warned him not to fly, but Cerdan didn’t take her seriously. She felt so strongly about her premonition that a week later she sent Cerdan a letter telling him to avoid air travel, especially on Fridays. He continued to ignore her, even though he had superstitious tendencies, such as holding fast to pregame rituals to ensure a winning game. The Air France F-BAZN Constellation crashed on a Friday.

What would you say?

January 5, 2016

the-6-41-to-parisThere are ordinary moments from my youth that remain as clear to me as the moment they happened. Why, I’m not sure, other than they impacted me with some unresolved wonder, such as a few minutes I experienced on the subway during graduate school in Chicago. I was in my late 20’s, working and going to school. A fellow student boarded the train and took the seat beside me. I was infatuated with him, often staring at him during classes. There were many other seats available on the train, and I think taking the seat beside me was his attempt to get to know me. I remember the gray evening light, the cold in the poorly heated car, and also how frozen I felt emotionally, petrified in my shyness. I couldn’t say anything, not even hello, let alone look at him and smile. The train shuttled along. He also didn’t say a word. And then, he rose from his seat and got off the train. Why didn’t I say something?

In The 6:41 to Paris, a man sits beside a woman on a train. In this instance, there are no other seats available. This simple act ignites Jean-Philippe Blondel’s captivating, brief novel that builds tension with each character’s inability to acknowledge the other. They sit in silence, paralyzed by uncertainty and insecurity, as I was. When they were 20 years old, Cécile Douffaut and Philippe Leduc dated. Back then, 27 years ago, Cécile was plain, “nothing striking”, while Philippe was handsome, popular and cocky. They came together in a flirting fluke, and what kept them together was Cécile’s unpredictability and her refreshing nerve that intrigued Philippe. All along, he intended to dump her. Three or four months later, during a trip to London, Philippe’s arrogance demolished the affair with emotional cruelty.

Think of yourself in such a situation: Cécile and Philippe are now 47 years old. Each recognizes the other but doesn’t know if the other recognizes him/her. Philippe is now a balding, divorced TV and stereo salesman with a middle-aged paunch who knows he settled for less in life. Cécile is now an attractive, successful, married entrepreneur who pushed herself to rise above her humiliating youth yet still wrestles with feelings of inferiority. What would you say? For the non-stop ride, neither speaks ups. Philippe is ashamed about his self-centered actions those many years ago, and also depressed about his unsuccessful life. Cécile finds herself still enraged by what happened in London.

The story simmers with tension over who’s going to speak first, as the train travels for an hour and a half from Troyes, a town southeast of Paris, to the capital city. Blondel cleverly pieces together his characters’ individual life stories, with each thinking about their worthiness as spouses and parents, their statuses in their work and, most moving of all, their failure so long ago. Their inner voices in self-conversation capture relatable human concerns and emotions that draw on our compassion. We read to find out what happened in the past and if, in the present, Cécile and Philippe will finally say something to each other, as I wish I had done long ago in Chicago.

The 6:41 to Paris is translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

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