Was Nobel author Albert Camus murdered? New book in English says yes.


Was Nobel writer Albert Camus murdered by the KGB? We’ve written before about the mystery that surrounds his death at 46, and we’ve written before about Giovanni Catelli, too, the author of a book about the subject … in Italian.  His book, The Death of Camus (Hurst), will finally be out next month in English.

David Coward, currently writing a biography of Rétif de la Bretonne, writes in the Times Literary Supplement:

Albert Camus spent Christmas 1959 at his house in the Vaucluse with his family and his publisher, Michel Gallimard. After New Year, instead of returning to Paris by train with his wife and children, he decided to get a lift with Gallimard, a fan of fast cars, and his family, in their 4.5 litre Facel Vega HK500. Camus saw his family off at Avignon station on January 2 and set off the next day with the Gallimards. They stayed the night near Macon, set off again on January 4, lunched at Sens and, an hour or so later, crashed at high speed into one of the plane trees lining a straight stretch of road. Camus was killed outright, Gallimard died a few days later but Mme Gallimard and their daughter survived. There was little traffic at the time but someone remembered that the car was travelling fast and “waltzing” just before impact. Another witness recalled that the speedometer was stuck at 145 kph, though a third swore it read zero. Mme Gallimard said that something seemed to “give way” under the vehicle just before the crash.

For Giovanni Catelli, Camus’s death was no accident, but a political assassination. His book, first published in Italy in 2013, starts with the assumption that sets the tone: “Fate doesn’t conspire against a man just like that – that’s something men do”. So which men did it? Camus, voice of reason and Nobel prizewinner, certainly had enemies. French nationalists believed he had sold out to the Algerian rebels who, in turn, thought he was too moderate in his support for their struggle. The right resented his Resistance credentials, the left thought he had betrayed the cause. His criticism of fascist regimes riled Spain and his hostility to Soviet interventions in East Berlin and Hungary, plus his championing of Boris Pasternak, displeased Communist Party hardliners everywhere.

In Prague in about 2010, Catelli found a “crystal clear clue” which revealed unambiguously that Camus had been murdered by the KGB. The clue was a passing mention in the memoirs of the poet and translator Jan Zábrana (Cély život, A Whole Life, 1992) who had been told by a well-informed, well-connected but, alas, unnamed man that agents had placed a device inside a tyre of Gallimard’s car which would blow it at a pre-set high speed.

“He certainly had enemies…”

Having nailed the modus operandi, Catelli set about identifying Zábrana’s informant. The trail was cold and the suspects dead, but Zábrana had mentioned Dmitri Shepilov, the Russian foreign minister whom Camus had criticized in the Franc-Tireur in 1957 for his role in the invasion of Hungary. Surely he had a motive for silencing his tormentor? Catelli demonstrates that Shepilov and his agents had form in this department, though his list of KGB murders all involved poison. But he fails to explain why Shepilov waited three years before giving the order nor how, by then, he had the power to do so. In 1959 he was a lowly archivist in Kyrgyzstan, where he had been sent after trying to unseat Khrushchev.

Coward’s conclusion: “Catelli intrigues but does not convince.”The whole article is here. Is it just another of the modern world’s conspiracy theories, then? You can also read The Guardian‘s take on Catelli’s book and Camus’s death (and it’s not behind a paywall) here. An excerpt:

“The accident seemed to have been caused by a blowout or a broken axle; experts were puzzled by its happening on a long stretch of straight road, a road 30 feet wide, and with little traffic at the time,” Herbert Lottman wrote in his 1978 biography of the author.

Catelli believes a passage in Zábrana’s diaries explains why: the poet wrote in the late summer of 1980 that “a knowledgeable and well-connected man” had told him the KGB was to blame. “They rigged the tyre with a tool that eventually pierced it when the car was travelling at high speed.” …

Catelli has spent years researching the validity of Zábrana’s account. In his book, he interviews Zábrana’s widow Marie, investigates the KGB’s infiltration of France, and includes secondhand testimony from the controversial French lawyer Jacques Vergès. Catelli was contacted by Giuliano Spazzali, an Italian barrister, after the book’s publication in Italy. Spazzali recounted a conversation he’d had with the late Vergès about Camus’ death.

“Vergès said the accident had been staged. It is my opinion that Vergès had more evidence than he cared to share with me. I refrained from asking,” Spazzali told Catelli. “Discretion is the best attitude when a hot topic rises unexpectedly. I didn’t investigate any further, and yet I remember how Vergès was certain that the staged accident was schemed by a KGB section with the endorsement of the French intelligence.”

At the conclusion of the book, Catelli hopes his work will bring forth more evidence, “before the waves of time come to lay waste to the sandy, frail traces of what happened.”

(And read the review in L’Inactuelle here.)

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