(My review on goodreads)
Even in translation this is a beautifully written book. Part adventure, part philosophy of life, the author describes the experience of aviation in the 20s and 30s and concludes with a meditation on war in the final chapter, with the Spanish civil war as an example and guide.
Saint-Exupéry began as an aviator, flying for the French mail service in the mid 20s. He describes the many dangers of flying from France to west Africa, and later, flying from Argentina to Chile over the Andes. This was at a time when airplane motors were not utterly reliable, and incapable of high speeds or high altitude. So when a pilot was caught in a storm he was as nearly powerless as a feather to resist the winds and downdrafts. It’s pretty exciting stuff, but Saint-Exupéry goes to lengths to explain that he cannot really convey the actual experience of the pilot who, faced with such urgent dangers, is quite unlikely to experience fear but, rather, will be entirely focused on the tools of his trade: his intimate understanding of the capabilities of his plane, the controls, the instruments, the glimpses of mountain peaks or desert sands.
The facing of danger is the only “truth” of mankind that Saint-Exupéry acknowledges (until the very end of the book), and he expresses a no dount sincere pity for the clerks and bookkeepers that muddle through their existence without facing anything more demanding than a choice of where to have lunch. You can take that or leave it, but he makes an interesting case either way.
The constant theme in this book is the precise way in which man lives in the world; the sources of joy and sorrow; the nature of friendship and comradeship. In that sense it is a humanistic book to the core. Saint-Exupéry is openminded - various bigotries notwithstanding - and embraces mankind with all its faults, and views life as a precious gift to all who possess it. I found the book to be by turns exciting, moving, and thought provoking.