I took college level French in the sixties. Having grown up twelve miles from the Mexican border, taking Spanish classes in Junior and Senior High School, and having an exchange student from South America living with me meant my Spanish was pretty good. At the University Spanish was not suggested for my major’s language requirement, so I shifted to French.
They speak of how knowing one Romance Language makes all the others easier. In some ways I believe that’s true. But no one warns you that learning similar languages can screw up your knowledge of both languages. To this day I inter-mix French words with Spanish words and sometimes throw in an English word when I’m really frustrated.
But despite my having several language requirements for my major in graduate school, they were all focused on reading the language and not speaking the language.
One of the first books they had us reading in the college French class was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic Le Petit Prince. Although deeper thoughts and philosophies were obvious in what on the surface looked like a children’s book, the class was too busy struggling with the vocabulary and missed all the good stuff. The second semester we read Camus’s L’Etranger and once again concentrated more on the language than on any real understanding of the novel.
In the years since then I have read both books in English and in French, counting them now amongst my favorites. Recently I picked up Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand, and Stars and was amazed at how good a writer Saint-Exupéry was and what an fascinating life he led.
Wind, Sand, and Stars might almost be considered two books. The first book tells the story of Saint-Exupéry’s experience in the early days of airplanes and getting the mail through. But the real theme of the narrative is humanity: what it means to be a man. The second part of the novel deals with the Spanish Civil War and again, the underlying theme is humanity.
To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.
When observing the war, Saint-Exupéry asks the simple question:
How does it happen that men are sometimes willing to die?
Wind, Sand, and Stars is full of interesting human stories and observations that will make you stop and think. Some of the stories are adventures that might even elicit fear and discomfort. It’s a short book and a very rewarding read.