On the fourth of January, 1960, the 46-year-old French writer and Nobel laureate Albert Camus died in a car crash. It was declared an accident, and a blown tire was blamed. But in 2013, the Italian poet Giovanni Catelli published an astonishing hypothesis, now being published in America for the first time. He believed that Camus was murdered by the K.G.B.
“A horrible conclusion,” the novelist Paul Auster writes in a brief foreword, “but after digesting the evidence Catelli has given us, it becomes difficult not to agree with him.” Others, including Camus’s biographer, have remained skeptical. Only one thing is certain after reading this book: with the singular exception of P. D. James’s fictional Inspector Dalgliesh, poets make for lousy detectives.
The problem is a predilection for aesthetics over forensics. Catelli devotes an entire chapter to proclaiming that a car crash was too ordinary an end for a literary demi-god such as Camus. The “trivial accident” was, he sniffs, “inadequate, inauthentic, almost a poor and gratuitous coup de theatre.” This raises the question: In what manner should Camus have died in order to satisfy Catelli’s sense of the sublime? Perhaps if he had been shot by a Stranger? Or struck down by The Plague? Or maybe taken a Fall from a great height? Alas, since Camus never wrote a book entitled The Crash, Catelli is left to conjure up a suitably grandiose death more befitting the man’s greatness.
It’s true that Camus made many enemies with his outspoken proclamations against authoritarian governments, and Catelli supposes his death was ordered because of Camus’s denouncement of the Soviet massacre of Hungarians in 1956. But his source for this is a single anecdote in the published diary of the Czech poet—another poet!—and translator Jan Zábrana, in which Zábrana recalled meeting “a knowledgeable and well-connected man,” who told him that Camus’s car crash had been engineered by Soviet intelligence, which had “rigged the tire with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed.”
That’s it. Catelli’s entire book rests on this crumb of secondhand hearsay. The man who spoke to Zábrana isn’t named, and Zábrana himself died in 1984. But for Catelli, Zábrana’s diary entry is “an invisible, secret, unquestionable certainty—there is something in the indissoluble fabric of words and events that incessantly propagates into the present the simple evidence of the truth, the unbiased list of things as they happened, the fatal, irreparable sequence of an order, of some accurate moves, of a tragedy from which there is no return.” Welcome to CamusAnon.
In what manner should Camus have died in order to satisfy Catelli’s sense of the sublime? Perhaps if he had been shot by a Stranger? Or struck down by The Plague?
The rest of the evidence Catelli musters is as empty and insignificant as the universe Camus and his existentialist chums suggested we all live in. To make up for this, the poet-sleuth rests his case on a series of increasingly fanciful metaphors, at one point anthropomorphically asserting that the road the car crashed on was bordered by “magnificent—and dangerous—plane trees.” Unfortunately, those plane trees were not questioned by Catelli, so the reader is left to imagine the one-sided interrogation that might have been.
Instead, a variety of hangers-on, and hangers-on of hangers-on, are enlisted to testify that, well, anything is possible. A long list of K.G.B. abductions and assassinations are pored over, but these are nearly all of Soviet émigrés, and notably none feature the one-of-a-kind assassination device suggested by Zábrana. As for the three-year gap between Camus’s denunciation of the Soviet massacre and his assassination, that is left unexamined. If this were the work of Russian intelligence, it was the K.G.B.-team.
Ultimately, this book is less a smoking gun than a smoke ring worthy of the perennially Gauloise-puffing Camus himself. It is an ephemeral, barely there thing that, upon closer inspection, vanishes before your eyes as if it never existed at all.