Wind, Sand and Stars – Saint-Exupéry

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I think most people come across Antoine Marie Jean-Baptiste Roger de Saint-Exupéry, to give him his full name, via his massively popular novel The Little Prince which is one of the most translated books ever written, only beaten by The Bible and, depending on where you look, Pinocchio. Once you have heard of his work then quite often you discover that he was a French pioneer aviator, flying mail planes from 1926 and that he died in mysterious circumstances during WWII whilst on a reconnaissance flight looking for German troop movements in mid 1944. This lovely Folio Society edition concerns some of his flying experiences from a student through the 1930’s. He was to write another book covering his wartime flying called Flight to Arras and having finished this book I now need to get hold of a copy of that.

I’m not sure what I expected from this book, tales of daring do, a man against the elements in what was still very primitive machinery perhaps, what I had not allowed for was how much the philosopher and poet would shine through. Indeed near the beginning in the chapter called ‘The Elements’ which describes being caught in a storm in the Andes Saint-Exupéry makes it quite clear that my first thoughts are not to be realised

And so, in beginning my story of a revolt of the elements which I myself lived through I have no feeling that I shall write something which you will find dramatic.

In reality the story that follows is dramatic, but not because of excitable reportage which may have been the style selected by a lesser writer, but for the calm descriptions of each problem thrown at the pilot as the storm winds batter his plane around the sky. The various chapters whilst maintaining an internal consistent time-frame are not placed chronologically in the book. Chapter one does cover his days as a student pilot, or at least the preparations for his first flight as the pilot on a mail plane rather than his student days and as the book progresses you find him in South America and later the Sahara although in reality his three years as a desert pilot preceded his time across the Atlantic.

There is surprising little flying in the book at all, the longest chapter ‘Prisoner of the Sand’ starts out with a proposed flight from Paris to Saigon in December 1935 and does indeed have Saint-Exupéry and his mechanic in the air for several pages until the inevitable crash presaged by the chapter title has them down in an unknown part of the desert. The main part of the chapter concerns their attempts to attract rescue and treks away from the plane wreckage to seek water and nourishment almost all of which had been lost in the crash. But even here Saint-Exupéry deflates the tension pointing out early on that he is writing the story so they must have eventually found help, even  though it was at the last possible chance as they were almost dying from lack of water. This for me is the best chapter of the book, closely followed by ‘Men of the Desert’ which again is chiefly not concerned with flying but rather the people on the ground that he comes into contact with and almost half the chapter regards the freeing of a slave held by desert nomads and returning him to Marrakesh.

The final chapter, entitled ‘Barcelona and Madrid (1936)’ covers some of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in this conflict was never as a participant unlike George Orwell whose time there led to his book Homage to Catalonia. In fact it is not clear exactly what he is doing there as he manages to be on both fronts and is vitriolic regarding the futility of the conflict.

There was not much to choose between Barcelona and its enemy, Saragossa; both were composed of the same swarm of communists, anarchists and fascists. The very men who collected on the same side were perhaps more different from one another than from their enemies. In civil war the enemy is inward; one as good as fights oneself. What else can explain the particular horror of this war in which firing-squads count for more that soldiers of the line?

and a little later

Here in Spain a man is simply stood up against a wall and he gives up his entrails to the stones of the courtyard. You have been captured. You are shot. Reason: your ideas were not our ideas.

Here again Saint-Exupéry is dealing with mankind as his subject, the title of the book is probably a little misleading, you expect Biggles but you get Descartes.

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On the 23rd July 1944 Saint-Exupéry’s most famous work The Little Prince was published for the first time. Eight days later he set off on a routine reconnaissance flight in a P-38 Lightning looking for German troops and was never seen again. Indeed no trace of his plane was to be found for over fifty years, first a bracelet was discovered in the nets of a Marseilles fisherman and that led to the discovery of a wrecked P-38 off the coast. Checking a recovered serial number proved the wreck to be his plane but there was no body. Near the end of The Little Prince the eponymous hero has to return to his own planet and amongst his last words are

I shall look as if I were dead; and that will not be true…

For over fifty years fans of Saint-Exupéry wanted that to be true of him also…

 

Homage to Catalonia – George Orwell

This wasn’t the book I intended to read this week, but my friend and fellow book blogger Mixa in Barcelona (read her review here) saw a copy on my shelves and has tracked down a copy in Catalan so I thought it was probably about time to reread the book after a gap of about twenty years so that it would be fresh in my mind when she wants to talk about it. Nowadays Orwell (real name Eric Blair) is almost entirely known as a novelist and his journalism is largely and sadly neglected. Homage to Catalonia even started out being neglected. It was first printed on 23rd April 1938 and a year later by the start of WWII it had only sold around 900 copies and soon after went out of print. It would only be available sporadically until Penguin Books printed a copy in March 1962, since then it has never been out of print.

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The book tells of Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War as part of an international militia against the uprising of General Franco and he is very clear that this is the war as he saw it and for the most part it is a very readable account. There are two chapters where he attempts to make sense of the alphabet soup of political organisations and militias taking part and these are prefaced by clear warnings that it is about to get complicated, as shown in the below extract from paragraph two of chapter five…

At the beginning I had ignored the political side of the war, and it was only about this time that it began to force itself upon my attention. If you are not interested in the horrors of party politics. please skip; I am trying to keep the political parts of this narrative in separate chapters for precisely that purpose. But at the same time it would be quite impossible to write about the Spanish war from a purely military angle. It was above all things a political war.

What follows is a section I’m glad I read because I had to keep referring back to it to sort out in my mind the differences and indeed the similarities between PSUC, POUM, FAI, CNT, UGT, JCI, JSU and AIT all of which were political parties or trade unions or possibly both, it does get very confusing, especially as in theory they were all aligned against the Fascists of Franco but seemed to spend most of the time fighting and bickering amongst themselves. This was particularly true during the short lived Barcelona uprising that Orwell got caught up in by happening to be on leave from the front after 115 days and arrived back in the city just before it all got even more complicated. But I am getting ahead of myself lets get back to chapter one with Orwell arriving in Barcelona with his wife, intending to write about the war but actually enlisting as a member of the POUM militia within days of getting there.  His wife Eileen stayed in the Hotel Continental in Barcelona throughout their time in Spain whilst Orwell was fighting on a front line less than 170 miles away. The photo below is by Robert Capa and is part of the John Hillelson Agency collection and shows the sort of trenches Orwell would be in.

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Initially Orwell writes of his surprise on arriving in Barcelona in December 1936 that unions and workers parties had taken over the city and everywhere he saw the red and black flag of the Anarchists who were in control. This appealed to the socialist principles that Orwell espoused and it was probably this that led him to opt to fight for them rather than simply report on the situation. Unfortunately for him later he chose the wrong set of initials to join up with, but as he had said above the internecine politics hadn’t registered with him at first and he effectively just joined the first group that would have him. The first chapter covers the ‘training’ or rather lack of it he received in the Lenin barracks the poor conditions and the largely useless equipment they were issued with, chapter two has him on his way to being posted to the front where he was finally issued with an ancient rifle.

Chapters three and four tell of his time in the trenches above Zaragoza on the Aragon front, a place where the 6 foot 3 inch Orwell was clearly unsuited being head and shoulders taller than his fellow militiamen as can be seen in the photo below from the University College, London collection and reproduced opposite page 65 of my edition.

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The time there was largely one of freezing temperatures, squalor and boredom, the two front lines were so far apart on opposite mountain tops that only by the merest chance could anyone be hit by firing from the opposition. What wounds and deaths did occur were mainly accidents of the sort you get when you hand unreliable weapons to 15 year old boys without showing them how to use them. The real oddity in the photo above though is that Eileen is there so she must have made a trip up from Barcelona although Orwell doesn’t mention her doing so in the book.

After the first of the political chapters, chapter six has him still bored at the front line

Meanwhile nothing happened, nothing ever happened. The English had got into the habit of saying that this wasn’t a war, it was a bloody pantomime.

and reflecting on the effect that the war was having on the local population who were largely trying to live their lives as best they could. In chapter seven Orwell finally sees some action, it was decided to crawl at night across the hundreds of yards of no man’s land and attack the fascist line. It did not go well and although they did get into the enemy trenches they were told to retreat before morning and that would be the only time he faced the enemy in actual combat. Chapter eight is very short and is largely concerned with preparations to go on leave back to Barcelona.

Chapters nine, ten and eleven all concern his badly timed break back in the city. On his return he discovered that the workers revolution had largely petered out and life had returned to a sort of normality with the war something happening in the distance.  However this was not to last long, the tensions between the various groups was about to explode onto the streets and on the 3rd of May fighting began, initially at the telephone exchange but rapidly spreading through the main thoroughfares.  Orwell is caught up in the middle of this but it rapidly becomes as much of a stalemate as the ‘fighting’ on the front. The various factions take up strategic positions and sort of agree amongst themselves to not shoot each other. These chapters for me are the most interesting of the book, the endless boredom of the front is at least improved here by not only the considerably more action but also the shortness of the time scale before it all came to an end.

Chapter twelve sees Orwell return to the front but this was to be for a very short time as he was soon wounded by a shot through the neck which saw him invalided out. By this time he was increasingly disillusioned by the war, what he had seen in Barcelona had convinced him that this was not the great and noble calling that he once thought it was and his choice of POUM was about to become a major problem. Whilst in hospital and then trying to get his discharge papers signed off POUM were picked on as the scapegoat for the fighting in Barcelona and all members were to be arrested and probably shot as traitors. As he describes it this was definitely untrue but it was a convenient fabrication to allow the other factions to re-unite behind. So as well as being wounded he was now a wanted man. In the last two chapters he and Eileen manage to escape Spain and he reflects on his experiences. His conclusions went strongly against the narrative being pushed in the socialist press in the UK which he also heavily criticised and this meant that getting the book published proved difficult as his normal publisher wouldn’t take it.

The book is a fascinating study of the realities of war, the long periods of tedium enlivened by occasional periods of firing from the trenches in the beginning of the book through the difficulties of conflict within a city and is also surprisingly funny in places as he enlivens the tale. All in all it deserves to be better known. When most people think of Orwell what usually comes to mind is 1984 or Animal Farm, try his reportage, it is definitely worth seeking out.

My copy is the 1970 Folio Society first edition which was popular enough to have two further reprints in 1972 and 1975 before dropping out of the Folio catalogue until 1998. It then re-appeared as part of a five volume set of Orwell’s reportage along with “Down and Out in Paris and London”, “The Road to Wigan Pier” and two volumes of journalism and essays. This set has as yet not been reprinted. Although bought second-hand and with a badly sunned spine and grubby covers that don’t want to clean, what I like about this edition is the inclusion of contemporary photographs of Orwell and other people mentioned in the book on the front line. Regrettably not any by Orwell himself because as he explains in the book his camera and photographs were all stolen or impounded along with his notes and press clippings at various different times whilst he was involved in the war. I have reproduced a couple of the photos from the book above. The cover illustration is a view of the battlefield near Belchite on the Aragon front and is from the Fox Photos Ltd collection.