Monday, May 8, 2017

Book Review - Airman's Odyssey by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I really wish teenage me had discovered Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I read a lot of Gordon Baxter's and Len Morgan's columns in Flying Magazine back then (which definitely influenced my writing style), but Saint-Ex is in a league by himself. Airman's Odyssey is a collection of Saint-Exupery's three most well known non-fiction works: Wind, Sand and Stars, Night Flight, and Flight to Arras.

Of the three, Wind, Sand and Stars is something of Saint-Ex's autobiography. Night Flight gives a sometimes harrowing account of a single night in the early days of mail runs in South America, and Flight to Arras is a shorter, philosophical volume inspired by a combat flight during the fall of France.

P-38L Lightning and F-16C
Antoine de Saint-Exupery died while on a reconnaissance flight in an F-5B (photo-recon variant of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning in 1944. The most recent work in this volume was Flight to Arras, written in 1940, seventy-seven years ago. Even so, these are words that reach across time to ring true today.

The descriptions in Wind, Sand and Stars are what I want my writing to sound like. When Saint-Ex describes laying in the sand in the Sahara watching the stars come out, you feel as though you're there, pinned to the ground with all of space hurtling towards you. You can practically feel your own hands going numb as he describes fighting with a massive storm across the Andes mountains. When in Flight to Arras he describes people of France retreating to nowhere, the sorrow and desperation is palpable.

"A chief is a man who assumes responsibility. He says, 'I was beaten.' He does not say, 'My men were beaten.' Thus speaks a real man."
     - Flight to Arras
Do any words ring truer to many of the situations we find ourselves in today? Millions of people point fingers, blaming one group or another for their problems, while never once looking inward to ask if they themselves are part of the problem. Saint-Ex saw two World Wars decimate his homeland. In between he flew airmail across some of the most rugged places on the planet, doing constant battle with his aircraft, and with the elements themselves. When his words speak as loudly as they do today, we would do well to listen.

"I understand why an equality that was founded upon God involved neither contradiction nor disorder. Demagogy enters at the moment when, for want of a common denominator, the principle of equality degenerates into a principle of identity. At that moment the private refuses to salute the captain, for by saluting the captain he is no longer doing honor to the Nation, but to the individual."
     - Flight to Arras

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