Craig Storti reveals one of his personal favorites: Saint Exupery’s Wind, Sand, and Stars—treasured by many of us!
Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery, reviewed by Craig Storti
This month’s column is a bit of self-indulgence on the part of your Book Review Editor, in that the book is first and foremost a personal favorite, and only then also happens to be something of a cross-cultural book. This is also an unusual choice for another reason: it is one of those books—each of us has one, I suspect—that as much as we treasure it, we are nevertheless reluctant to recommend it to others. Why? Because you know that after they’ve read it, they will come back to you and ask you to recommend something else like it.
But there isn’t anything like it.
If you ask what Wind, Sand, and Stars is about, that’s easy: it’s a series of stories about adventures the author had while he was one of the earliest pilots of the French Aeropostale, the government entity that first carried mail by air from Paris to North and West Africa and later across the Atlantic to Chile and Argentina, crossing back and forth over the Andes, at the dawn of the age of aviation. That’s three-fourths of the book, anyway, but the last quarter, called Barcelona and Madrid (1936), is, as the author says, about a trip he took to Spain during the Spanish Civil War to answer for himself the question: How does it happen that men are sometimes willing to die?
But to say Wind, Sand, and Stars is about flying adventures is like saying War and Peace is about Napoleonic overreach. OK. Fine (you’re thinking). But then what is it about? Saint Exupery uses his flying experiences—various crashes, rescues, violent storms—and encounters with his fellow pilots, Saharan desert Arabs (some murderous, some kindness itself), Senegalese slaves, and others—to muse on the human condition. If that sounds dry as dust, just start with the chapter called ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ and you’ll weep for not having read this book years ago (so you can reread it now). Then, when you’ve calmed down and dried your tears, you’ll go back to the beginning and be in for some of the most beautiful prose (even in the English translation) you’ll find anywhere.
And the cross-cultural parts? The book doesn’t try to be cross-cultural—it’s about flying, remember—but Saint Exupery flies over and refuels in a lot of cultures, and there are wonderful moments. My personal favorite is the story he tells about three Moors of his acquaintance who were brought to France (by a fellow pilot) for their first visit outside North Africa. While hiking in the Alps, the three desert dwellers behold a waterfall for the first time.
Some weeks earlier they had been taken up into the French Alps [where] their guide had led them to a tremendous waterfall, a sort of braided column roaring over the rocks.
“Come, let us leave,” their guide had said [after a while].
“Leave us here a little longer.”
They had stood in silence…mute, solemn…gazing at the unfolding of a [great] mystery. The flow of a single second would have resuscitated whole caravans that, mad with thirst, had pressed on into the eternity of salt lakes and mirages. Here God was manifesting Himself. He had opened the locks and was displaying His puissance.
“That is all there is to see. Come.”
“We must wait.”
“Wait for what?”
They were awaiting the moment God would weary of his madness. They knew Him to be quick to repent, knew Him to be miserly.
“But that water has been running for a thousand years.”
And here’s another paragraph that’s hard to resist:
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, culture, or scale of values, if one form of activity rather than another, brings self-fulfilment 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.
After you’ve been bowled over by this book, you may want to try others by de Saint Exupery. He’s most famous for The Little Prince, but that’s essentially a children’s book. A good deal is to buy Airman’s Odyssey, which combines three of his titles (including Wind…) in one volume. If you begin to wonder more about the man, there is a wonderful biography by Stacy Schiff.