Book review: Wind, sand and stars (Terre des hommes) by Antoine de Saint Exupery
A pilot's reflective account of his traveling adventures over the Sahara Desert and other hostile places in the world
Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote this book to give an account of his adventures as an airplane pilot during the early days of aviation. He manages to provide details of his anticipation during his training and on his way to his virgin flight, as well as his accident and how he survived, when his plane crashed in the middle of the desert. On top of that, he also describes the adventures of his fellow pilots over the Sahara Desert and in other areas of the world in graphic detail, as these pioneers literally fought to death to establish new air travel routes.
Since this is a book that is about the early days of aviation, as they are described by a pilot, the reader would expect it to be full of incomprehensible technical jargon, which would put the reader off.
On the contrary; although there is a certain amount of technical terms that are used throughout the book, and which refer to aviation, the book can be easily read and understood by the general reader who is not an expert in airplanes.
This is due to the fact that the author places a strong emphasis on the human side of aviation and pilots, leaving complicated technical details at bay; otherwise, this book would not appeal to the general public, but only to the community of airline pilots and engineers, which was not the author’s purpose.
The author’s intention was to illustrate these adventures during early air travel, from a strongly philosophical point of view, in order to be able to discover a deeper meaning in this almost superhuman effort, which kept pilots going in this war, not against other humans, but against the forces of nature.
It’s like insects attracted to light, even if light finally kills them.
Therefore “Wind, sand and stars” is not limited to describing the everyday struggle of those early pilots to build a network of air connections across hostile regions of the world, but it also symbolizes man’s struggle with natural forces since the dawn of time.
It doesn’t describe, for example, a romance in an era of prosperity, which would be, of course, a very reasonable book topic, since concepts such as romance, love, and prosperity are also part of life, or the other side of the coin, if you like it, compared to notions such as fighting against nature, being a man on duty and mission, and having to live on very limited resources.
As a result of his flying experience across different parts of the world, where most people would not even imagine of finding themselves those days, and probably not even today, Exupery developed a knowledge and understanding of our planet that had no borders.
This global knowledge helped him to overcome the limits that people usually put on themselves, and see clearly that the ultimate goal is survival, but only to make sure that the hero is ready for the next achievement.
Resting on his laurels is not an option for the author, and as soon as he escapes a near-death accident, he does not lose any time, and goes to another area of the planet to fight the wind, the sun, the sand, the sea, the snow, and the clouds, and God knows what else, with the stars being his only hope and guide in this journey to the unknown.
Is “Terre des hommes” relevant today?
Progress never stops. Humans need to keep going ahead, discovering new places, things, and ways to do things.
If we look at aviation, for example, those pioneers who are described in the book paved the way for today’s aviation industry, with the ultimate purpose of conquering the skies and space, and expanding human horizons, as a result.
In addition, the author views his flying experience during across the globe as an opportunity to expand his own horizons, know new places, which may be hostile but also extremely fascinating, and learn the ways of other people, which is perhaps the most important thing, because, in today’s increasingly globalized world, the ability to communicate and understand other people by accepting cultural diversity is essential, otherwise conflict is inevitable.
At some point of the book, Antoine de Saint Exupery says that all humans have the same basic needs, more or less. Besides, throughout the book, and during the author’s adventures, as well as the adventures of his colleagues, it becomes evident that all humans also have the need to feel important and respected.
I believe that “Wind, sand and stars” is an inspirational book, since, through real-life situations, it shows that humans have the power to survive in very difficult, life-threatening conditions.
Most people will never have the opportunity to become as famous as Antoine de Saint Exupery and write about their incredible achievements.
However, the day-to-day struggle that most people have to endure all over the world throughout their lives, in order to make ends meet, is no less of an achievement.
At least, Exupery, like a modern-day Icarus, had the chance to literally raise himself above the ground, and set himself free through the wings of an airplane.
Antoine de Saint Exupery’s literary skill
Surely, I would not be a more competent judge of Exupery’s writing skill than the judges of the French Academy or the US National Book Award who recognized and awarded the author with top prizes for his writing talent and skill.
However, I would like to point out that, as a pilot, he has an extraordinary ability to add a more philosophical dimension to his job, and it is this special ability that makes his writing effort stand out.
Combine this ability with the down-to-earth approach of a pilot (a paradox, isn’t it?), and you have a travelogue that gives an account of a pilot’s adventures as accurately as possible, leaving out any unnecessary and boring details and concentrating on the essential things that matter most.
In fact, when Antoine de Saint Exupery describes a person that he met, for example, while traveling around the Sahara, it’s like writing a pilot’s report, which should be as objective as possible, similar to a medical report. As a result, there is no room for the expression of any subjective views that would probably favor a particular side or person.
Antoine de Saint Exupery was a man on a mission, and this message, i.e. the importance of achieving the ultimate goal at any cost, permeates the book.
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