Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot in the early days of the air mail service, when it involved negotiating biplanes over unforgiving landscapes with rudimentary instrumentation and communications, and minimal chance of survival if things went wrong. In the 1920s he flew in South America, the setting for Night Flight. Fabien, piloting the Patagonia mail-plane, takes orders from Rivière, his boss in Buenos Aires. Operating at night means they can gain an advantage for their service over trains and steamships, but commerce is not Rivière’s primary concern. Rather, the writing posits that there is a clear, unironic nobility to his potentially sending men to their deaths: his decisions are courageous (although surely it must be easier if it’s not you doing the actual dying, one would have thought)? All things considered, I’d rather be reading about it than doing it. Things certainly do not look too rosy for Fabien, stuck in a cyclone which the rest of his fellow flyers have been able to avoid. Desperately gaining height, he suddenly manages to reach the calm above the storm. ‘His bonds had been loosened, like those of a prisoner allowed to walk for a while alone among the flowers.’ But he knows that it is a false reprieve among the stars: Fabien still has no idea where he is, and fuel is running out. Underlying everything, running through this novella, is the cold fact that flying in the dark is a dangerous business and death is never absent. This is what weighs so heavily on the conscience of Rivière, of course. ‘These men…who are perhaps doomed to disappear, could have lived happily’, he thinks. ‘In the name of what had he torn them from individual happiness?’ He is aware that Fabien and his radio operator do not have long: ‘Similar to those thieves of fabled cities, immured within the treasure-chambers from which there is no escape. Amid the frozen gems they wander, infinitely rich yet doomed.’ Rivière consoles himself with the thought that – if these pilots had not perished now – old age and death would destroy them ‘even more pitilessly than he’. In short, it’s all very French. Saint-Exupéry himself did not make old bones.

 

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