I have had a great love for the Sahara

Wind, Sand and Stars, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Antoine de Saint-Exupery is a French author, best known for his 1942 children’s bestseller titled “The Little Prince”.

As well as The Little Prince however, Saint-Expupery also wrote a number of serious novels and a memoir based on his experiences as a pilot with a French operated North African air mail service. Wind, Sand and Stars is that memoir, and is one of the works I took with me on my recent holiday to Libya.

Memoir however is a tricky word in this case, really Wind, Sand and Stars (referred to just as Wind, going forward) is a work of humanist philosophy, of poetry and a meditation on what it is to be human and on our obligations one to the other. It is not a work of recollection intended simply to tell us what happened in a particular period of the writer’s life.

Wind was originally written in French, with the title Terre des Hommes. I read the William Rees translation in the Penguin Modern Classics edition. I am not familiar with the original French, but the English in this version is easy to read, skilfully applied and captures a real sense of poetry and vision. The Penguin edition also comes with an excellent introduction by Mr Rees, in which he explains details of Saint-Exupery’s life and other works and explains the differences between his translation and an earlier US translation published while Saint-Exupery was alive. Essentially, the Penguin edition is far closer to the French original, the US version was changed to meet assumed US tastes and so lost the tightness of the original prose (the Penguin edition is a concise 119 pages).

The Penguin translation also restores the original foreword, bizarrely omitted from the US edition, where Saint-Exupery explains the importance of a man testing himself against nature and the world so that he may better know himself, and going on to explain further his purpose in writing the book as follows:

In my mind’s eye I still have the image of my first night flight in Argentina. It was a dark night, with only occasional scattered lights glittering like stars on the plain.
Each one, in that ocean of shadows, was a sign of the miracle of consciousness. In one home people were reading, or thinking, or sharing confidences. In another, perhaps, they were searching through space, wearying themselves with the mathematics of the Andromeda nebula. In another they were making love. These small flames shone far apart in the landscape, demanding their fuel. Even the most unassuming of them, the flame of the poet, the teacher or the carpenter. But among these living stars, how many closed windows, how many extinct stars, how many sleeping men…
We must surely seek unity. We must surely seek to communicate with some of those fires burning far apart in the landscape.

As the book progresses, Saint-Exupery tells tales of his colleagues in the night mail, heroes as he sees them, men who guide their planes through the night sky each time knowing it may be for the final time. The planes these men fly are unreliable, open cockpitted, prone to mechanical error. Navigational aids are few, it is not unusual for men not to return from a flight (and indeed Saint-Exupery later died while flying, which perhaps is how he would have wanted it).

Saint-Exupery speaks of Henri Guillamet, a friend and colleague to whom he dedicates the book and who on crashing in the High Andes endured extraordinary hardship in order to survive, spurred on not by thoughts of his own survival but by fear of the grief his death would cause his wife. Another colleague pioneers new routes, each time testing himself against the unknown and a very real risk of death. He talks of a French Sergeant in a desert outpost which never sees enemies, and to whom the arrival of a pilot is as the arrival of rain after a long drought. He speaks then, in large part, both of loneliness and of the heroism of those who continue despite it. Loneliness, for Saint-Exupery, is unavoidable – we are each locked in our own heads and he is unsympathetic to those who choose lives of bourgois comfort and avoid facing the realities of existence as he sees them.

What does it mean, Guillaumet, if your days and nights of service are passed in the checking of gauges, in balancing your craft by gyroscope, in sounding the breath of your engines, in urging on fifteen tons of metal withou your shoulders: The problems confronting you are ultimately the problems of all men, and you share the nobility of the mountain-dweller with whom you are on a direct and equal footing. Like a poet, you are a connoisseur of the first signs of dawn. From deep in the chasms of troubled nights, you have willed so often the coming of that pale flower, that gleam of light which rises from the dark lands of the east. Soemtiems that miraculous spring has unfrozen slowly before your very eyes, and healed you when you thought that you were dying.
Your use of a scientific instrument has not made a dry technician of you. It seems to me that those who are alarmed by too many of our technical advances are confusing ends and means. The man who struggles in the hope of material gain alone indeed harvests nothing worth living for. But the machine is not an end in itself; it is an implement. As the plough is an implement.

For Saint-Exupery then, technology does not diminish man, the world itself certainly does not. We are only diminished by ourselves. His is a romantic vision, it is a vision which owes something to the works of such French writers as Chateaubriand (who I recommend only from historical interest I’m afraid, though others love him), it is fundamentally a poetic and mystical vision, but refreshingly it is not an anti-scientific one.

Saint-Exupery talks a number of times of this self-diminution, most affectingly in a passage about two young girls he encounters while staying at a remote farmhouse, run down and with vipers nesting under the table. The reference to nineteen in the following passage is a reference to his own sisters’ habit in youth of grading male visitors out of twenty.

I am dreaming, today. All that is very far away. What has become of those two fairies? Married, probably. But will that have changed them? The passage from girlhood to womanhood is such a serious thing. What do they do in their new homes? What has happened to their relationship with wild grasses and with snakes? They were in touch with something universal. But the day comes when the woman awakes within the girl, with the dreams of awarding a ‘nineteen’ at last. That nineteen is a burden on the heart. Then some fool presents himself. For the first time those sharp eyes deceive themselves, and light him in beautiful colours. If the fool speaks in verse, he is taken for a poet. Surely he understands the pitted floor, surely he loves mongooses, surely he is gratified by the intimacy of the viper swaying around his legs beneath the table. He receives a heart which is a wild garden, he who loves only trim parklands. And the fool takes the princess away into slavery.

For Saint-Exupery then we are things of glory, reduced to the prosaic by circumstance and the mundane. For him, we do this to ourselves and to each other, his work is in large part an argument for the importance of humanity as a thing of value. We, as human beings, matter.

Where Wind excels then, it not just in its poetic and evocative language or in its deep love of the empty landscapes of the desert and the sky, but in its recognition of the importance of human life and of human consciousness. Wind is painfully aware that each of us is a world, inviolate and unvisitable, ultimately unknowable. There is no sense in this work of a beneficient providence, of the ability of the metaphysical to sustain us, instead all we have is each other and in this Saint-Exupery sees a moral imperative.

This is further illustrated by an episode where Saint-Exupery frees a slave (the Libyans of the time still kept such) who unlike most has not become reconciled to his lot. Saint-Exupery buys his contract, releases it and gifts the freed man with money to establish himself. When the man spends the money buying gifts for children he does not know, Saint-Exupery understands it is because he must reestablish himself as a man, as one to whom people can be grateful and have affection, in order to rid himself of the burden of his own consciousness of his slavery. A great compassion flows through these passages, again romanticised (the man may simply have been very foolish in how he used the money in reality, but this is a work of poetry, not realism) but affecting for all that. Saint-Exupery speaks too of how the slaves, when old and exhausted, are simply abandoned to lie down in the sand and die. Of one such dying old man, he says:

It was not his suffering that pained me. He hardly seemed to be suffering. But in the death of a man an unknown world is dying, and I wondered what images were sinking into oblivion with him. What Senegalese plantations, what white Moroccan towns were vanishing. I had no way of knowing whether within that black shape the last light was flickering on paltry concernsL the tea to be brewed, the animals to be taken to the well… whether a slave’s soul was fading into sleep or whether, revived by a tide of memories, mankind lay dying in all his glory. The hard bone of his skull was to my eyes like the old treasure chest. What coloured silks, what images of festivals, what obsolete and pointless vestiges had survived his shipwreck in the desert. I could not know. The chest lay there; it was fastened and it was heavy. I could not know which place in the world was disintegrating within that man through the immense sleep of his final days, disintegrating in that consciousness and in that flesh which little by little was reverting to root and darkness.

I found this a hugely powerful passage. Saint-Exupery here captures the sheer tragedy of any human death, of every human death. Each of us lost, no matter how humble we may be, is the loss of a world. Saint-Exupery sees some comfort in the works we leave behind us, children, contributions to society or to knowledge, the tragedy with the slave is by making him such his masters left him unable to leave behind that which would have given his life meaning and so with his death his world dies alongside him.

Only when we ecome aware of the part we play, even the most unobtrusive part, will we be happy. Only then will we live in peace and die in peace, for what gives meaning to life gives meaning to death.

The book progresses through a series of exploits, crashes, daring flights, encounters with the Libyans and Arabs. Its most gripping section however is a description of an incident where Saint-Exupery and his navigator crashed in the Sahara desert while off course. Without supplies, the two men struggled through the desert, experiencing hallucinations, terrible thirst, eventually blinding patches of light appearing in their vision as they neared death. Only a chance encounter with a bedouin saved them, and of this terrible ordeal Saint-Exupery again makes poetry.

I have had a great love for the Sahara. I have spent nights in rebel territory, and have woken in that vast golden expanse shaped by the wind like the swell of the sea. I have waited for rescue, sleeping under my wing, but it was not like this.

This section of the book has great power, it is a tale of survival in terrible circumstances, but not reduced to a macho boy’s own adventure as so many such tales are. Rather, things go wrong, men nearly die, and instead of marvelling at their stoicism we instead explore the thoughts of a man facing his own death. Saint-Exupery speaks again of the importance of life as a thing in itself, and of how life is worth living whether we believe ourselves to have thirty years left or just thirty hours. To be alive, for Saint-Exupery, is in part its own reward.

Were I to wish to criticise this work, I would note how romanticised it is, Guillaumet is hardly drawn as a full human being but rather as a heroic or even mythic figure, others are similarly images of nobility and sacrifice. But such a criticism rather misses the point, as I have said above, this is not a work of realism. It is not reportage. Rather, it is an argument that human life has value, even though it is fragile and easily lost.

At the close, Saint-Exupery speaks of his horror at how many of us are forced by circumstance or society to be less than human. He travels in a train with Polish workers and their families, all sleeping. The children are beautiful, unspoiled. The adults though have had the grace beaten from them through years of poverty and hard toil. Born human, they have had the fruits of their humanity denied to them, instead bought off with cheap entertainments and denied what Saint-Exupery would (perhaps idealistically) grant to all. I will give the final words to Saint-Exupery:

Too many men are left sleeping.



Filed under French, History, North Africa, Saint-Exupery, Antoine de

13 responses to “I have had a great love for the Sahara

  1. Irene Wilde

    Darling Max! I was beginning to believe you’d abandoned us.

    Another extraordinary review. I can’t imagine the time it takes to put together.

    Welcome back and Happy 2009.


  2. I’ve been in Libya, on holiday. Hence this work, and hence my current reading of Herodotus which I must admit is taking me a little while, despite being excellent.

    Tons of great archaeological stuff in Libya, plus incredibly friendly people (I make no comment on the government, however). I believe Americans will be allowed in soon, apparently Obama plans to lift restrictions, if you’ve any interest I’d go sooner rather than later as I imagine as it invites more tourists it’s character will change.

    Otherwise, coming soon to these pages will be Herodotus which talks of Libya, and then in a bit a memoir by an Italian doctor who worked there in the 20s and a history of Libya as I complete my Libyan literary excursion. I’ll probably space them between some other things though, as too much Libya could otherwise swamp other flavours.

    And a very happy 2009 to you too. I’m glad to be back and delighted as ever to hear from you.

  3. Don’t know if you have noticed it, but two novels coming out this spring centre on archaeology. Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels is set in Mesopotamia in 1914 — I’m 100 pages into it, it’s not great but readable. Looks now to be heading into a conflict between development interests (i.e. oil), European politics (the Great War looms) and excavating the past. Also, Anne Michaels’ new novel, The Winter Vault, starts out with the relocation of the temple at Abu Simbel as a result of the construction of the Aswan Dam. Flashes back, believe it or not, to the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway where communities (and graveyards — Michaels has a thing about disturbing the dead) were also flooded. Part Two of the book moves to Toronto and segues into the “tombs” of wartime Warsaw. That summary actually makes the book (it comes out in March — I got a hold of a proof copy) more interesting that it is. Alas, Michaels is a poet and for me the language got in the way of what could have been an interesting book. On the other hand, if you like poetic language, you probably wouldn’t have that problem. I will say that the memory of the impacts of dislocation make the book better in retrospect.

    Also, I have joined the book blogging world as KevinfromCanada at http://www.kevinfromcanada.wordpress.com Our tastes don’t always overlap, but they do sometimes. Lonely Londoners has arrived and I hope to post on it in a week or so. Now that I have discovered that Selvon lived in Calgary, I figure he deserves some attention here. Also, I have included Pechorin’s Journal on my blogroll — hope you don’t mind. Do drop by and weigh in; your comments are always interesting.

  4. Kevin,

    I hadn’t noticed it, I have to admit. The Unsworth on your description sounds patchy, have you finished it yet? The Michaels sounds better, but actually despite this particular blog entry my liking for poetic language in novels is not that high as a rule. With Wind, if you don’t like the poetry of the language, then you’re not going to like anything else as that’s the essence of the book. You read it in large part for that, or not at all. With a more plot driven novel though, I tend to find that kind of language can be an obstacle.

    Glad to see you’ve started a blog, I’ll be adding it to my own blogroll and reading it with interest. It’s no bad thing our tastes don’t always overlap, that adds interest. I’ll be interested to see your take on Selvon, I have in some ways such a profound local connection to his material that reading the thoughts of someone without that will be a useful shift in perspective. He’s been very influential, albeit quietly so, in UK literature.

    I rarely post much at weekends, but come next week I’ll definitely be posting comments over at yours and look forward to seeing what you cover.

  5. I will let you know what I think of the Unsworth when I finish it — at this stage my opinion could go in almost any direction. I’ll be picking up Selvon immediately after that.

  6. Land of Marvels went downhill — the story got so complex that all the many threads of it ended up going nowhere. I’ve posted a review but I think you can probably give it a miss. I’ll admit the Michaels, which I was lukewarm about when I finished, needs to be revisited and I plan to do that closer to its publication in March. I did start Lonely Londoners today and am very impressed — thanks for putting me on to Selvon.

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  12. Excellent review, Max – his work *is* poetry and *is* romantic, and all the more profound and wonderful because of that.

  13. Thanks Kaggsy. I’ll be picking up Night Flight shortly thanks to your review!

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