Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1939) 229 p.
This is one of a number of books I picked up years ago at a Readings warehouse sale in the first few weeks I moved to Melbourne, back in the days when I happily accumulated books much faster than I could read them. I stopped and did a tally at the end of 2012 and realised I had more than enough books to last me until the end of 2013, when I theoretically might not be in Melbourne anymore, so I stopped buying them and am now racing against the clock to see if I can finish my stockpile before I get transferred to London. I’d love to own a nice old house one day and start building an endless library, but unfortunately I’m still in my early 20s and need to keep my possessions to a minimum because I’m still at a stage in my life when I’m travelling and wandering about. First world problems.
Anyway. Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a French writer and aviator of the 1920s and 1930s mostly famous in the English-speaking world for his children’s book The Little Prince, which I haven’t read. Wind, Sand and Stars is a memoir of his time as a mail pilot in the 1920s and 1930s, flying from France to the colonies in West Africa and South America.
I was hoping this book would be like Roald Dahl’s awesome 1930s adventure memoir Going Solo, but it’s apples and oranges. Exupery’s writing style is lyrical (sometimes verging on purple prose), and he’s something of a philosopher, deeply wrapped up in the questions of what it means to be alive, what it is to be human, etc. There are a number of dull interludes, especially in the first half of the book, where he’s waffling on through deep layers of metaphor, trying to establish exactly how it feels to be caught up in a certain situation. I didn’t find it particularly readable.
The book is much more compelling in the second half, particularly in the chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand,’ which details his crash in the Sahara Desert during an air race from Paris to Saigon. Exupery and his co-pilot were stranded in the desert for four days and were close to death when they were miraculously rescued by a Bedouin. This fifty-page segment is brilliantly told, charting the decay of Exupery’s optimism, the agony of dehydration, and the slow unravelling of his mind – particularly, the misery of continually hallucinating rescue only to have his hopes dashed. This segment is followed up by his experience in the Spanish Civil War – as a journalist, I think – which is the only thing I’ve read about that war apart from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and like the desert crash it was much more interesting than the first half of the book.
Overall, this wasn’t a bad memoir at all if you’re prepared to put up with some heavy Latin lyricism and the occasional boring philosophical aside.