Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is known universally for the gentle charm of Le Petit Prince, but it is this book, Land of Men - known originally in English as Wind, Sand and Stars - which is his masterpiece. First published in 1939, it documents Saint-Exupéry's life as a pilot in the pioneering days of long-distance flying and in particular his experiences as a pilot transporting mail across countries, across continents.
These courageous pilots took their lives in their hands each time they set out to deliver the mail. It was extremely hazardous, for the aeroplanes were unreliable, precise meteorology was in its infancy, radio communication and maps were relatively primitive and new and long routes were being pioneered over dangerous terrain of all kinds - across the Sahara, over the Andes, even just across the Mediterranean.
But in Land of Men, Saint-Exupéry doesn't just relate tales of derring-do in the clouds, the storms, or what it is like to be lost over thousands of featureless miles above sea or sand. He does speak of the dangers, the risks from bandits and dissidents when landing in a tiny desert outpost and the struggles to keep these basic machines in the air when faced with buffeting winds or flying through dense cloud for hours, without one reassuring sight of a landmark. He recounts his crash in the Sahara, his days of walking without water and his remarkable survival. But all this action is underpinned by reflection, by poetic expression, by camaraderie and by an inner quiet born of those hours spent high in the sky - with the wind, the sand and the stars. It is poignant also, because Saint-Exupéry himself disappeared one day five years after the book's publication, flying over the Mediterranean.
All this, and a rich humanity, makes this a great, great book. It has been an international favourite since it first appeared and is now presented in Bill Homewood's vibrant new translation of Terre des Hommes, more faithful to and representative of Saint-Exupéry's original. This recording, narrated with intimacy and care by Nicholas Boulton, will be one you will never forget.
In the 1930s and 40s Saint-Exupery was in the French Airforce flying flimsy unreliable little planes across frequently treacherous airmail routes over the oceans and Africa and South America. Land of Men (a direct translation of the original title Terre des hommes) is his account of his 1930s experiences, but not so much the narrative of them, as an extended meditation on 'the heart of mystery' which he finds whilst alone in the cockpit at the 'whim of the winds', the 'something vast' he sees in the corridors of moonlight beyond this flawed, earthly life.
There are tales and dramas as well, such as the account of his near-death in the Sahara after his plane came down. After days existing on only sandy dew, of tantalising mirages and with his rasping throat almost closed, he is saved by a Bedouin on a camel, an 'aureole of charity' shimmering in the desert sand, who gives him water. He arranges to buy a black slave and ensures that he is returned to his family in Agadir, and he laments the loss of pilots, his comrades which nothing can ever replace. At a local dwelling the lively daughters of the place tell him not to worry about the strange movements under the table - it is only the adders which live in the house walls! Saint-Exupery is also an acute observer of creatures and birds, like the desert fox which carefully removes only one nut from each branch.
That Land of Men was Saint-Exupery's original title suggests the importance he placed on his universal message. From the perspective of his plane buffeted by the turbulent winds, he could see people as crushed by modern life and their pursuit of money. He wanted a better life for them, closer to the 'invisible riches' and serenity which he had found amongst the stars.
Nicholas Boulton presents Saint-Exupery's musings beautifully, his depth of tone reflecting the depth of the author's thoughts and feelings. Ukemi Audiobooks has saved another classic for posterity!
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