Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras)
Saint-Exupéry’s last adult novel continues the trend of the previous ones, only this time he is flying in a war, specifically the beginning part of World War II, when the Germans are invading France. France is in chaos. People are being told to evacuate (but not where to) so they are bringing out their old cars, breaking down and generally blocking the road for the remnants of the French army. There is no food for them, nor are there medical supplies. Meanwhile Saint-Exupéry’s squadron is carrying out reconnaissance missions under very difficult conditions, with many young men not returning. They are getting little sleep and, every so often, have to move the entire outfit, as the Germans advance.
Much of the novel is about one particular mission that Saint-Exupéry flies with two others, Dutertre, his navigator who also does the reconnaissance work and an unnamed machine-gunner. (When speaking to him, Saint-Exupéry merely addresses him as gunner.) Saint-Exupéry laconically recounts the mission, taking everything in his stride but, what makes the story so well done is that even as he is flying, he is daydreaming. His daydreams take various forms but focus mainly on three things – his own life, what is happening with the flying squad and what is currently happening to France with the German invasion. For example, when they are flying low over the German positions to photograph them and they are under continuous attack from the ground, with bullets flying all around them, he is thinking of Paula, the Austrian governess he had as a child, whom he has not seen since he was five. While he is thinking of Paula, Dutertre is telling him which direction to take and how long before they can climb and he himself is struggling with the plane. But, all the time, it is Paula that preoccupies him most.
We also get a first-hand picture of the disaster that is happening to France, with the evacuations, the retreat of the army, the Germans pushing through and rumours flying around. A woman has to give birth to her child in the road, while a man desperately searches for medicine for his young child. Of course, Saint-Exupéry ruminates on the war or, more particularly, on what he sees as the role of man and man’s responsibility and how France may pull out of its (philosophical) situation. He doesn’t give us any facile solutions nor an easy ending – they have to move again and, of course, we know what the outcome is. But he does write a superb story.
First published in French 1942 by Gallimard
First published in English 1942 by Reynal & Hitchcock