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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand, and Stars)

It is called a novel and may well have fictional elements but it looks a lot like a memoir. Basically Saint-Exupéry tells a few stories from his flying days and comments on life, Islam and cultural relations and, of course, the impending war with Germany. Of course, he does this very well indeed and this book, while perhaps not up to the standard of his first two, is very well worth reading. Just don’t expect a plot.

There are several stories he recounts from his flying days but there are two main ones. The first concerns a pilot called Guillaumet. Guillaumet is flying somewhere in the Andes and crashes. The Chileans say that he will be able to survive the freezing temperatures (40 degrees below zero) for no more than a few hours. When he is not found by the next day, it is assumed that he is dead. More than a week later, he turns up alive. He recounts his ordeal, with the refrain that not even an animal would do what he had done. He had crashed in a storm and had waited the storm out, buried in the snow with the mail bags for protection, for forty-eight hours. He had then started walking in the direction he thought would get him out. Bear in mind he was up in the Andes – well over 3000 metres high – and the temperature was forty degrees below freezing. He nearly gave up several times. He had no food, his feet were swelling and he risked falling from a great height. He thought of his wife and realised that if he just gave up, his body might not be found and she would not collect on his life insurance for four years. Eventually, he got out but Saint-Exupéry tells a wonderful tale of survival.

Some years later, Saint-Exupéry is flying in Africa with a radio operator, Prévôt. They have a mechanical problem and crash in the desert, unsure of where they are. He thinks of Guillamet and is inspired by him and, indeed, follows the same direction that Guillamet followed. At first they do a single trip to see if they can find anything. They find nothing but use up all their water. The next day Saint-Exupéry goes out on his own. He sees a cross and believes that it is a monastery. He continually sees people. All turn out to be mirages. When he returns to the plane, he sees Prévôt talking to two Arabs – another illusion. Prévôt goes out later because he is sure that there is a lake nearby but, of course, there isn’t. Eventually, they set off walking, sure that they are going to die and taking it all pretty much in their stride. Of course, as he lives to tell the story, they bump into a Bedouin who rescues them but, in the meantime, he has mused wisely on man and his existence and his small place in the world when faced with nature.

There are other stories, all with a purpose but Saint-Exupéry is not one to shove a moral down your throat. There is an excellent story-cum-musing on the relationships between Europeans and the native tribes in Africa, particularly the Muslims, and Saint-Exupéry shows a toleration – even when there is a clear threat by the Muslims to kill him as he allows his women not to cover their face and because he does not pray five times a day – which might be considered for the twentieth-first century. Not really a novel and not, perhaps, as fine as his previous efforts, but still a wonderful book.

Publishing history

First published in French 1938 by Gallimard
First published in English 1939 by Heinemann