Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery

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By Ray Greenblatt
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          I had never reviewed a memoir in translation for fear that it would not equal the original in quality. However, the literary reputation of Lewis Galantiere (1895-1977)–the French translator of Saint Exupery’s book—greatly reassured me. Not only was he an intimate friend of the author, but he had translated another Saint Exupery best seller Night Flight (1931). In addition, Galantiere had translated the dramatist Jean Anouilh into English and was president of PEN, the oldest international literary organization. These two friends were so close that when Saint Exupery was having trouble naming his book—and suggestions abounded: Land of Humans? Land of Men? Stars in Windy Conditions? etc.—Galantiere’s title immediately struck Saint Exupery as perfect: Wind, Sand and Stars (1939). And this translation has sold unchallenged into the present era!
                                                          I – The Art of Aviation
          Antoine de Saint Exupery avidly began to fly in 1922 in the still early stages of aviation. His first book Southern Mail published in 1929 and all subsequent works were about flying. In his career he flew to the Far East and South America; however, his main focus was the Saharan region.
          The author puts us into the cockpit: “Already one has a foretaste of the treasures about to be garnered on the way—the green and brown and yellow lands promised by the maps; the rosary of resounding names that make up the pilot’s beads; the hours to be picked up one by one on the eastward flight into the sun.
          “There is a particular flavor about the tiny cabin in which, still only half awake, you stow away your thermos flasks and odd parts and over-night bag; in the fuel tanks heavy with power; and best of all, forward, in the magical instruments set like jewels in their panel and glimmering like a constellation in the dark of night. The mineral glow of the artificial horizon, these stethoscopes designed to take the heartbeat of the heavens, are things a pilot loves. The cabin of a plane is a world unto itself, and to the pilot it is home.” (171)
          The crew make an interdependent team, even the men on the ground tracking them: “The operator sits in the light of his lamp, dutifully setting down figures; the mechanic ticks off points on his chart; the pilot swerves in response to the drift of the mountains as quickly as he sees that the summits he intends to pass on the left have deployed straight ahead of him in a silence and secrecy as of military preparations. And below on the ground the watchful radio men in their shacks take down submissively in their notebooks the dictation of their comrade in the air.”  (24)
          A veteran pilot kept the novices humble by telling sobering tales.“The very curtness of his replies on these tempestuous days was matter enough out of which to build a fabulous world filled with snares and pitfalls, with cliffs suddenly looming out of fog and whirling air-currents of a strength to uproot cedars. Black dragons guarded the mouths of the valley and clusters of lightning crowned the crests—for our elders were always at some pains to feed our reverence.”  (12) Saint Exupery enjoyed incorporating mythology into his writing.
          A pilot must be able to read the landscape. “The hours during which a man flies over this mirror are hours in which there is no assurance of the possession of anything in the world. These palms beneath the plane are so many poisoned flowers. And even when the flight is an easy one, made under a shining sun, the pilot navigating at some point on the line is not gazing upon a scene. These colors of earth and sky, these traces of wind over the face of the sea, these clouds golden in the afternoon, are not objects of the pilot’s admiration, but of his cogitation. He looks to them to tell him the direction of the wind or the progress of the storm, and the quality of the night to come.” (33)
          What is the true nature of an airplane: “In this spirit do engineers, physicists concerned with thermodynamics, and the swarm of preoccupied draughtsmen tackle their work in appearance, but only on appearance they seem to be polishing surfaces and refining away angles, easing this joint or stabilizing that wing, rendering these parts invisible, so that in the end there is no longer a wing hooked to a framework but a form flawless in its perfection completely disengaged from its matrix, a sort of spontaneous whole, its parts mysteriously fused together and resembling in their unity a poem.” (66)  The author is able to define science in terms of the Fine Arts.
          Saint Exupery believed that machinery could reconnect man with nature: “And thus, also, the realities of nature resume their pride of place. It is not with metal that the pilot is in contact. Contrary to the vulgar illusion, it is thanks to the metal, and by virtue of it, that the pilot rediscovers nature. As I have already said, the machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” (67)
          The value of flying:  “Flying is a man’s job and its worries are a man’s worries. A pilot’s business is with the wind, with the stars, with night, with sand, with the sea. He strives to outwit the forces of nature. He stares in expectancy for the coming of dawn the way a gardener awaits the coming of spring. He looks forward to port as to a promised land, and truth for him is what lives in the stars.”  (227)
                                                          II – Men of the Air
          Those early aviators took many chances since planes were so unsophisticated. “Flying by the seat of your pants,” was a common expression. Many of Saint Exupery’s colleagues crashed. Here is Guillaumet after his place went down, facing death in the snow. Saint Exupery addresses him as if the author were there: “Already you were beginning to taste the relief of this snow that had now become an insidious poison, this morphia that was filling you with beatitude. Life crept out of your extremities and fled to collect round your heart while something gentle and precious snuggled in close at the centre of your being. Little by little your consciousness deserted the distant regions of your body, and your body, that beast now gorged with suffering, lay ready to participate in the indifference of marble.” (56) Only the intense guilt about his wife and children being alone forced him to struggle on to eventual safety.
          Another friend Mermoz crashed on a high mesa in Chile: “Mermoz and his mechanic had been forced down at an altitude of twelve thousand feet on a table-land at whose edges the mountain dropped sheer on all sides. For two mortal days they hunted a way off this plateau. But they were trapped. Everywhere the same sheer drop. And so they played their last card.
          “Themselves still in it, they sent the plane rolling and bouncing down an incline over the rocky ground until it reached the precipice, went off into the air, and dropped. In falling, the plane picked up enough speed to respond to the controls. Mermoz was able to tilt its nose in the direction of a peak, sweep over the peak, and, while the water spurted through all the pipes burst by the night frost, the ship already disabled after only seven minutes of flight, he saw beneath him like a promised land the Chilean plain.
          “And the next day he was at it again.” (40)
          However, it was Saint Exupery himself who seemed to need the nine lives of a cat or more. Here he is temporarily caught in a tornado: “The mountain range stood up like a crenellated fortress against the pure sky while the cyclone crushed me down to the surface of the waters. How hard that wind was blowing I found out as soon as I tried to climb, as soon as I became conscious of my disastrous mistake: throttle wide open, engines running at my maximum, which was one hundred and fifty miles an hour, my plane hanging sixty feet over the water, I was unable to budge. When a wind like this one attacks a tropical forest it swirls through the branches like a flame, twists them into corkscrews, and uproots giant trees as if they were radishes. Here, bounding off the mountain range, it was leveling out the sea.” (86)
          After another crash he has this physical sensation: “When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no root between those depths and me, no branches to screen them, no root to cling to, I was seized with vertigo and felt myself as if flung forth and plunging downward like a diver.” (105)
          He then has a dream about his imperturbable and eternal nanny: “Ah, I owe you a page, Mademoiselle! When I came home from my first journeyings  I found you needle in hand, up to the knees in your white surplices, each year a little more wrinkled, a little more round-shouldered, still preparing for our slumbers those sheets without creases, for our dinners those cloths without seams, those feasts of crystal and of snow.
          “I would go up to see you in your sewing-room, would sit down beside you and tell you of the dangers I had run in order that I might thrill you, open your eyes to the world, corrupt you. You would say that I hadn’t changed a whit.” (108)
          When Saint Exupery and his mechanic Prevot crashed in the Sahara, after days without sustenance they began to hallucinate: “When we had struggled up to the top of the black hump we sat down and looked at each other. At our feet lay our valley of sand, opening into a desert of sand whose dazzling brightness seared our eyes. As far as the eye could see lay empty space. But in that space the play of light created mirages which, this time, were of a disturbing kind, fortresses and minarets, angular geometric hulks. I could see also a black mass that pretended to be vegetation, overhung by the last of those clouds that dissolve during the day only to return at night. This mass of vegetation was the shadow of a cumulus.” (201)
          Then later: “Amazement stopped me in my tracks. Joy surged up and filled my heart with its violence. In the firelight stood Prevot , talking to two Arabs  who were leaning against the motor. He had not noticed me, for he was too full of his own joy. If only I had sat still and waited with him! I should have been saved already. Exultantly I called out:
          ‘Hi! Hi!’
          The two Bedouins gave a start and stared at me. Prevot left them standing and came forward to meet me.  I opened my arms to him. He caught me by the elbow. Did he think I was keeling over? I said:
          ‘At last, eh?’
          ‘What do you mean?’
          ‘The Arabs!’
          ‘What Arabs?’
          ‘Those Arabs there, with you.’
          Prevot looked at me queerly, and when he spoke I felt as if he was very reluctantly confiding a great secret to me:
          ‘There are no Arabs here.’
          This time I know I am going to cry.” (215) Notice how effective the sudden  switch to present tense intensifies his dilemma.
          Saint Exupery lived from 1900 to 1944. His writing shows strong philosophical and poetic traits. I feel that he was fortunate to have lived that long. After so many accidents he was in chronic pain. He had trouble turning his upper body so had to be helped getting into his plane. He grew depressed and began to drink heavily. However, his writing became a compulsion as if he was budgeting the small amount of time left before he disappeared into the sea on his final mission.
                                                       III – Men of the Earth
          Foremost, Saint Exupery believed in individual freedom. He wanted no part of a bureaucrat’s life. “You, like a termite, built your peace by blocking up with cement every chink and cranny through which the light might pierce. You rolled yourself up into a ball in your genteel security, in routine, in the stifling conventions of provincial life, raising a modest rampart against the winds and the tides and the stars.” (23)
          The author had fallen in love with the desert: “This sea of sand bowled me over. Unquestionably it was filled with mystery and with danger. The silence that reigned over it was not the silence of emptiness but of plotting, of imminent enterprise. I sat still and stared into space. The end of the day was near. Something half revealed yet wholly unknown had bewitched me. The love of the Sahara, like love itself, is born of a face perceived and never really seen. Ever after this first sight of your new love, an indefinable bond is established between you and the veneer of gold on the sand in the late sun.” (130)
          He grew to respect the desert nomads’ way of life:
          “’What is he saying?’ I ask once again.
         ‘That he will shoot you if he meets you outside the fort.’
          ‘Why?’
          ‘He says you have airplanes and the wireless; you have Bonnafous {a French leader}; but you have not the Truth.’
          Emotionless in the sculptured folds of his blue cloak, Mouyan has judged me.
          ‘He says you eat greens like the goat and pork like the pigs. Your wives are shameless and show their faces—he has seen them. He says you never pray. He says, what good are your airplanes and wireless and Bonnafous, if you do not possess the Truth?’
          And I am forced to admire this Moor who is not about to defend his freedom, for in the desert a man is always free; who is not about to defend his visible treasures, for the desert is bare; but who is about to defend a secret kingdom.” (149)
          Saint Exupery found other truths when he flew into Spain during the Civil War in 1936. “Truth is not that which can be demonstrated by the aid of logic. If orange-trees are hardy and rich in fruit in this bit of soil and not that, then this bit of soil is what is truth for orange-trees. If a particular religion, or culture, or scale of values, if one form of activity rather than another, brings self-fulfillment to a man, releases the prince asleep within him unknown to himself, then that scale of values, that culture, that form of activity, constitute his truth. Logic, you say? Let logic wangle its own explanation of life.” (240)
          Another question he asks is why a man would risk his life. “The call that stirred you must torment all men.  Whether we dub it sacrifice, or poetry, or adventure, it is always the same voice that calls . . . What, Sergeant, were the visions that governed your destiny and justified your risking your life in this adventure? Your life, your only treasure! We have to live a long time before we become men. Very slowly do we plait the braid of friendships and affections. We learn slowly. We compose our creation slowly. And if we die too early we are in a sense cheated out of our share. We have to live a long time to fulfill ourselves . . . A great wind swept through you and delivered from the matrix the sleeping prince you sheltered—Man within you. You are the equal of the musician composing his music, of the physicist extending the frontier of knowledge, of all those who build the highways over which we march to deliverance. Now you are free to gamble with death. What have you now to lose?” (287)
          After someone’s death, what do we really love in him? “Gone was the feeble spark of humanity. And while in the man’s throat there was brewing that shriek which I know not what deferred, he had the leisure to reflect that it was not those lips he had loved but their pout, not them but their smile. Not those eyes, but their glance. Not that breast, but its gentle swell. He was free to discover at last the source of the anguish love had been storing up for him, to learn that it was the unattainable he had been pursuing. What he had yearned to embrace was not the flesh but a downy spirit, a spark, the impalpable angel that inhabits the flesh.” (265) Saint Exupery was asking this through the mind of a soldier but that man represented all men including the author.
          And what truly fulfills a man? “To come to man’s estate it is not necessary to get oneself killed round Madrid, or to fly mail planes, or to struggle wearily in the snows out of respect for the dignity of life.  The man who can see the miraculous in a poem, who can take pure joy from music, who can break his bread with comrades, opens his window to the same refreshing wind off the sea. He too learns a language of men.” (301)
          Qualities of Saint Exupery’s best selling book for children The Little Prince (1943)—translated into over two hundred languages—are also found in Wind, Sand and Stars. It is a blend of bare realism with a mystic view of man in the universe. From another planet the Prince has come to the Sahara to observe the ways of men. Saint Exupery is a man who many times met extreme rigors between life and death. From these experiences, instead of a jaundiced view of life, he—like the Prince—developed a deep love for the world and his fellow human beings.
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Ray Greenblatt has recently been published in: Abbey, Apiary, Boston Literary Magazine, Comstock Review, Clarion, and Painters & Poets.  His experimental novel TWENTY YEARS ON GRAYSHEEP BAY, half poetry and half prose, is being republished by Sunstone Press.

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