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For many years the phrase terre des hommes had a somewhat unusual connotation for me. My family visited Montreal in two successive summers, 1972 and 1973, when I was five and then six; and the place where we stayed was within walking distance of the decaying remains of the 1967 Expo, which had taken as its theme de Saint-Exupéry's title. So the phrase "terre des hommes" evoked memories of desolate and derelict pavilions and disintegrating plastic sculptures. I haven't been to Montreal in thirty-eight years, and I guess they have tidied it up by now.

But a few months ago I was discussing desert literature with my friend Mohamed Beissat, who actually comes from the Sahara, and he strongly recommended that I read Terre Des Hommes - and if possible in the original French, rather than in the English translation (Wind, Sand and Stars). I accepted his challenge, realising only later that it's a very long time since I read a novel in French - it was L'Étranger, urged upon me by my then girlfriend, probably a quarter of a century ago. And though I did also read a graphic novel in French a few weeks ago, that's not really the same challenge. I found it really tough going, and managed about a dozen pages a day, which is why it has taken me two weeks to get to the end.

It is a rather charming book. De Saint-Exupéry was there in the very early days of scheduled flights, across the Sahara and the Andes, an undertaking which was both constantly life-threatening and also gave the thoughtful pilot plenty of time to ponder the deep questions of continued existence. He reminded me, in a positive way, of the early Desert Fathers, though he is more fixed on the specifics of personal survival. The best and most famous passage his the story of his crash in and rescue from the Libyan desert; encounters with imminent death have a way of concentrating the mind.

I felt that it was not without flaws. Although de Saint-Exupéry constantly stresses our shared humanity, and indeed himself befriends, buys and releases a Moroccan slave; but the people he meets from other cultures (not only non-Europeans, but also the Polish workers who he meets on a train in the last chapter) are rather comprehensively othered, and his professions of equality seemed to me to include a taint of condescension. (Though maybe I would feel differently if I had read it in English rather than French.) Also there are very few women in the book at all, and we do not hear their voices.

Having said that, it must be one of the key books that inspired European intellectuals and peacemakers to seek a better way after the Second World War. I quoted one of his sentences in a post shortly after starting to read the book, and of course it is tragically ironic that the writer decribes how a character - whose name is Lécrivain! - disappears in mid-flight, never to land anywhere again; he must have been well aware of the likelihood of his own fate.

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