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C'est vrai? Camus was killed by the KGB?

August 10, 2011 | 11:00 am

Albertcamus_1946The French author Albert Camus' writing -- including the novels "The Stranger," "The Plague" and "The Fall" -- earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. He accepted that award in December; two years and a couple of weeks later, in January 1960, he was returning from a winter holiday as a passenger in his publisher's car. The car wrecked, killing Camus instantly (his publisher died a few days later) when the author was 46 years old.

More than 50 years later, a report has surfaced in Italy that alleges the KGB was involved in the author's death, sabotaging the vehicle. The Guardian reports:

The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has now suggested that Soviet spies might have been behind the crash. The theory is based on remarks by Giovanni Catelli, an Italian academic and poet, who noted that a passage in a diary written by the celebrated Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana, and published as a book entitled Celý život, was missing from the Italian translation.

In the missing paragraph, Zábrana writes: "I heard something very strange from the mouth of a man who knew lots of things and had very informed sources. According to him, the accident that had cost Albert Camus his life in 1960 was organised by Soviet spies. They damaged a tyre on the car using a sophisticated piece of equipment that cut or made a hole in the wheel at speed.

"The order was given personally by [Dmitri Trofimovic] Shepilov [the Soviet foreign minister] as a reaction to an article published in Franc-tireur [a French magazine] in March 1957, in which Camus attacked [Shepilov], naming him explicitly in the events in Hungary." In his piece, Camus had denounced the "Shepilov Massacres" –- Moscow's decision to send troops to crush the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

According to the story, Camus angered the Soviets with other statements as well. Yet one Camus biographer, Oliver Todd, told the Guardian he was "flabbergasted" by the news, for he'd seen nothing in his research to indicate the KGB targeted the author. Todd added, "[I]t is certainly true that KGB documentation is full of accounts of how the Soviets used the Czechs to do their dirty work. But while I wouldn't put it past the KGB to do such a thing, I don't believe the story is true."

Camus was found with a train ticket in his pocket -- he accepted a ride from his publisher, a friend, after having purchased it -- and with 144 pages of his working manuscript, "The First Man." Does this add to the mystery, or make it less likely?

Je ne sais pas.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Albert Camus in 1946. Credit: Associated Press