Published in 1942, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry talks about his life, experience, thoughts and feelings about being a pilot in WWII, while on the defensive and with little hope of surviving. The novella follows one flight, and comments on both the flight itself (mechanically, strategically) and the war in general.
It’s bleak. It’s about death: Preparing for death, seeing friends die, seeing people die on a scale that the human brain cannot understand. It’s about failure modes: A state collapsing in on itself, a mind clinging to protocol and habit. He mixes the visceral despair with lyrical observations of a pilot zoning out: “The density of aerial warfare? Grains of dust in a cathedral.” (Take notes, sci-fi authors!)
And then, in the end, he lost me: After spending most of the book talking about the horrors and absurdity of war, he uses the elation at the completed flight to turn around into a praise of the sacrifice and principles involved. “Humanism has neglected the essential role of sacrifice”, and all that.
Some more observations:
As always, it’s disconcerting to read things written in the midst of a big event, particularly while the end is still uncertain. In 1942, things looked terrible for France, and I’m awed reading about it.
I’m not sure why I keep trusting English translations. The translation uses the word “holocaust” in some places, and I’m not sure how well-chosen it is, given the publication date. “Ça sauve- rait notre mission d’être sacrifiée, une panne de laryngophone” is translated as “A speaking tube out of order would preserve us from the holocaust.” (and another similar case), or “Nous nous sommes jetés dans l’incendie.” as “[We] flung ourselves into the holocaust.”. The translation is also off-by-two-chapters for some reason, but my French isn’t good enough to figure out what happened there.
Lastly: when he talks about the absurdity of war, the missing material, the gears that refuse to mesh, the sheer scope of astonished terror, he reminds me of Vonnegut: “After nine months of war we had still not succeeded in persuading the industries concerned that aerial cannon and controls ought to be manufactured with regard to the climate of the upper altitudes in which they were employed.”, or: ““Your death will have no effect at all. Defeat is inescapable. But it is proper that a defeat manifest itself by dead. There must be mourning. Your part is to play the dead.” “Very good, sir.””