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When pioneer air pilots brought mail, hope & life-affirmation

When Joseph Kessel sat down to write about an aviator from the early era of airmail, his own experience as a volunteer pilot during the Great War would still bring back memories of the carnage, the trenches, death. But also, the feeling of immensity aboard a wooden single-engine, twin-seat fighter.

Like most of his friends, Kessel had seen the rise of Nazi Germany with concern. To him, the only antidote against the gregarious propaganda force for the masses, capable of mobilizing entire populations and who knows what else, was the public legend of air pilots’ exploits, the last among Romantic adventurers, an endangered species in the era of mass ideologies.

Jean Mermoz

Hence Mermoz, his 1938 novel. His book about French pilot and pioneer of the Aéropostale service, Jean Mermoz, was more critical than ever. Published in 1938, it included some of the most extraordinary anecdotes Mermoz had been able to pull off aboard his planes before disappearing on a trip from Dakar to Natal, Brazil, on December 7, 1936, moments after reporting that the Latécoère 300 he was piloting had a troublesome engine.

Flying in the dark

Mermoz had pioneered risky trans-Mediterranean and transatlantic airmail flights when airports were dirt tracks more on less devoid of vegetation and obstacles. He even pushed the high tolerance to risk among comrades when joining Latécoère, a pioneering airmail company from Southern France, to deliver mail during nighttime. No navigation tool nor visibility aid would help him in his endeavor.

Two years after Mermoz’s death, Joseph Kessel’s book rememorated those moments of early “naked eye” aviation. Those days, waiting for a plane to arrive and land at night after thousands of kilometers of flight, was something nobody had done or seen:

“How could I really be waiting on a hellish night for a plane to arrive? And lo and behold, after an hour waiting I heard the sound of an engine spinning nearby the field. I rushed out of my cabin and yelled, “ramp up the bonfires!” But no matter how much gasoline was sprayed on them, myself, just thirty yards away, couldn’t see them. “He won’t find the way; he can’t find it!” I said to myself. He will take a tumble. As I was saying this to myself, Mermoz landed flawlessly in the fire triangle. He looked like he had come out of a river. He laughed, “Mail, hurry up!” He cried. And he took off in the dark, in the deluge.

“Thomas ran his hand over his forehead. Ten years had passed since that terrifying vigil, since that appearance of Revelation. Yet his voice had an almost superstitious tremor when he added, speaking of the rider dripping with night:
—I don’t understand, I can’t understand.”

Promise at dawn (and at dusk)

Twilight represents an equivocal promise for mankind: it’s the last light of the day, and also the first one. This is perhaps the reason Romain Gary, French writer, diplomat, and figure of the Résistance as a pilot in Africa and England, named his autobiographical novel La promesse de l’aube.

Greek pre-Socratics crossed the poetic threshold of twilight by naming differently the same star depending on the moment of observation: giggling at the end of the day, Hesperos is the evening star and Phosphorus‘ —the morning star— half-brother. Both personify the planet Venus.

Both Hesperus and Phosphorus were part of the five Astra Planeta or Wandering Stars (and planets observable with the naked eye) of Eos and Astraeus, the goddess of the dawn and the god of wind. They also connect our highly technical and predictable existence with mythical times when gods, demi-gods, and mortals would intermingle across Hesiod’s five ages of man.

Latécoère 26

Like remnants of old sagas, the pre-cybernetic, less technological age of piston-powered, fully mechanical vehicles and airplanes allowed for individual, desperate gestures, often of heroism, risky exploration, and life affirmation. Romain Gary’s memoirs are indeed a promise of a beginning that is so precious that it can reveal too much of the mystery of life to a little kid spoiled at home despite the hardships they experience.

As an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, the single mother (an actress of sorts) and his son ends up in Southern France, where she will try to ciment a future of notoriety in “the country of Victor Hugo” (one of ideas, universality, human rights) for his son.

Adventures of a young immigrant kid

After early fiascos with personal music classes above their means, Gary’s mother will expect no less for his only child than a life of diplomat or man of letters. The writer will later explain in his memoirs, Promise at Dawn, how a kid experiencing attention and love so early won’t have the urge to look into the mystery of relationships later in life, the same way a war pilot from the Romantic era of aviation would rarely adapt to the bourgeois life and conventions of less dramatic and adventurous times:

“With maternal love, life makes a promise at dawn that it can never hold. You are forced to eat cold food until your days end. After that, each time a woman holds you in her arms and against her chest, these are merely condolences. You always come back to yell at your mother’s grave like an abandoned dog. Never again, never again, never again.”

Like in the best tragedies, his mother, who had lived to see her son “becoming somebody,” died on February 1941 while Gary was away, already engaged in the Resistance; he had joined the same day that a then-unknown general, Charles de Gaulle, pronounced his speech of engagement on the side of what he called the France Libre from the BBC studios in London.

But his mother managed to keep the flame of her presence alive to her son by writing a whole repertoire of letters to Romain and leaving instructions to a friend to send them regularly. Then, when her son would return triumphant to Nice, he would be ready, she thought, to face reality. When he returned after the war, he indeed had already become “somebody.”

The miseducation of Europeans

While writing his first novel, A European Education, Gary accumulated 65 hours of flight as bombardier-observer in the RAF’s No. 342 Squadron (Groupe Lorraine, French volunteers who had responded to De Gaulle’s call and joined the Free French Air Forces in North Africa and Britain, along with Britain’s Royal Air Force), he still used his family name, Roman Kacew.

The novel is an homage to the extreme conditions and camaraderie during the hardship of war. Years later, his fallen comrades will appear one way or another in his work. The stories and the rogue character of the few who decided to fight as members of the France Libre and never came back (like Robert Colcanap, death at 18 and “condemned to heroism”, to whom Gary dedicates A European Education) are recurrent in one way or another in the novels he wrote either as Romain Gary or, later in life, under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, only revealed as Gary himself after the writer’s death.

One of such characters is Morel, the protagonist of The Roots of Heaven (1956). Morel is a radical ecologist before the use of the word ecologism was widespread, trying to save African elephants from the slaughter of development and decolonization conflicts. John Huston would immortalize the conflict of mankind and nature in a now-forgotten 1958 film, with English actor Trevor Howard as Morel.

Romantic pilots, partisans, ecoterrorists before ecologism was a thing, disgraced officers fighting for redemption as if they were Joseph Conrad characters… Gary’s novels took place where adventure, exploration, and desperate gestures were still possible in a more innocent, pre-cybernetic world that had not lost innocence irreversibly.

Pilots and partisans against mass alienation

On August 8, 1945, French existentialist writer Albert Camus would write a leading article in Combat (founded as the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance during World War II). The United States had detonated the first atomic bomb against the Japanese city of Hiroshima two days before. One day after his editorial, on August 9, 1945, the nuclear bomb against Nagasaki went off. Camus’ account of the Holocaust and the use of atomic weapons against the Japanese population was a mere testimony of what many could see: classical humanism wouldn’t be able to recover from such a blow of civilization-scale horror.

Between hell and reason, Romain Gary’s characters show principles and humanity, as if only those capable of desperate gestures could bear the responsibility of carrying the values of hope and decency, especially amid the chaos of war, unrest, and impunity.

The dichotomy Romain Gary-Émile Ajar made Roman Kacew the only author to have won the Prix Goncourt (the first, with The Roots of Heaven), France’s most prestigious literary recognition, under two different incarnated avatars. But these personas were so different in life affirmation and bigger-than-life determination to Fernando Pessoa’s anemic, nostalgia-ridden heteronyms, that they represent the contrast between the last Romantic men of action and European “engaged” intellectualism talking comfortably from the rearguard (Jean-Paul Sartre will write in Les Temps Modernes that he found Gary’s novel about the Resistance “not that good.” Apparently, Gaullists risking their lives were too far apart from Sartre’s professed ideal of commitment).

Jean Mermoz (center) with Victor Etienne (left) and Henri Guillaumet

Janek Twardowski, the Baltic partisan from A European Education, tries to defy the horror of what in reality is the author’s depiction of the horror and nihilism among Europeans that will obliterate Stefan Zweig’s “world of yesterday”: civilization overridden by raw horror. Gary will use Twardowski to amend his peripheral role as Compagnon de la Libération in Africa (where he almost died of infection) and England.

The pilot Kacew, Romain Gary and Émile Ajar

Many years later, when the France Libre had become institutional with De Gaulle as president of a country trying to part ways with Vichy’s collaborationism and rewrite its past, Gary, then a diplomat in Los Angeles trying writing in English, will complete the book’s English version. In 1959, Gary was already thinking of books he would write in English later on.

Down the road, reincarnated in mysterious Émile Ajar, he would keep reflecting in the human condition despite the contempt most French writers and intellectuals would hold on him. Ajar’s Goncourt and the writer’s recent addition to the canonical collection of universal literature in French, Gallimard’s La Pléiade, are the last servings of the writer’s revenge against false intellectualism in the prosperous and conformist postwar world, the now extinct era we have come to know as Pax Americana.

The Marshall Plan consolidated American hegemony, a conference in Yalta sealed the world’s division into two superpowers. At the same time, Western Europe and Japan acknowledged their dependence under a new geopolitical reality in which economic, cultural and military bonds would replace nominal colonialism. France and Britain would secure a seat at the UN’s Security Council, and open war would give way to the strategic occupation of Central Europe and Japan. In a world divided between superpowers, there was no place for rogue desperados like Morel, the ecoterrorist “avant la lettre” depicted by Romain Gary in The Roots of Heaven.

Cinema and television stars replaced real and imaginary adventures of those who, unable to return to civil life after engaging in combat during World War I and the interwar period, made a decisive dent in the rise of modernity thanks to their pre-modern, almost suicidal risk tolerance.

Before Vichy’s collaborationism, France played a decisive role in the emergence of modern aviation thanks to the individuals who, unable to settle after the Great War, engaged in pioneer endeavors such as air mail delivery before the existence of modern navigational tools.

The human condition (as seen from the air)

One of such characters was the tall, charming, and cinematic Jean Mermoz, a character with a fitting nickname: the Archangel. He became a legend of aviation and an inspiration to a less imposing, shorter, more intellectual Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an adventurer with aristocratic pedigree unafraid of performing long flights across the desert we can recall when reading his influential The Little Prince; Mermoz and Saint-Exupéry would share a taciturn character and the audacity of those who have to improvise on their own, sometimes in desolate places —the Sahara, the Andes, the Mediterranean—, to land a plane with technical difficulties or keep it in the air.

Later on, Mermoz also was a towering figure to young Romain Gary himself, who had dreamed of the same fame and recognition not knowing at the time he would surpass it by far (not only having published stories about himself but becoming the noted writer his mother would have been proud of. But Mermoz was much more than a brave pilot with a handsome demeanor. Joseph Kessel tried to describe his aura:

“A saint is never born fully furnished with holiness like a breastplate. A hero never comes out fully cooked from a mold made in advance. The greatness of man is in his complexity. The rest is just an idyllic representation.”

Born in rural northern France, Mermoz was barely a teenager when the Great War would transform war, Europe, and the world. It changed his father too. With his mother’s connivance, he joined Paris to finish his studios. After failing the demanding baccalauréat to enter University in 1919, Mermoz got to know the city’s nightlife and the underworld.

The years at Latécoère and Aéropostale

Things could have been very different had Mermoz not crossed his way with Max Delby, a vaudeville singer who introduced him to aviation. Soon afterward, he joined the French army in Siria. It was 1922, and in the desert began his legend as a reckless, capable pilot skimming the surface of the desert.

Back in France in 1924, Mermoz struggled to return to civilian life, so he ran to join Latécoère, a small aircraft shop in Toulouse pioneering airmail. A risky show-off during his entry exam almost cost him his future as a pilot, but he showed the demanded capacities on a flawless, precise second flight. When in 1926, a young Antoine de Saint-Exupéry joined Latécoère, he was among the group of young pilots who would fall under Mermoz’s spell.

English version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Terre des hommes,” his account of the pioneer years of aviation

Soon, Mermoz, Henri Guillaumet, or Saint-Exupéry would transport mail to the rest of Europe (beginning with the route connecting Toulouse with Barcelona), colonial Africa, and later on as far as Latin America’s South Cone. Their success turned a small, adventurous company into the legendary Aéropostale.

Mermoz would confess to his friends how uprooted he was when there was no impossible trip to accomplish, no mission bigger than the routine of conventional existence.

Wind, Sand and Stars

In 1939, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published his personal account and homage to aviation and his comrades, Terre des hommes, a memoir translated into English as Wind, Sand and Stars. Not long after, most of them would engage one way or another with the meetings that would reinforce the support to General de Gaulle and appeal from London’s BBC waves to fight for the French Resistance.

In Wind, Sand and Stars, Mermoz appears lost among the routines of his time:

“But when the sky was turning dark, Mermoz suddenly squeezed my arm, and so hard that I felt his fingernails. “You see, now it’s the time when in Dakar…” It was the moment of the day when the mechanics rub their tired eyes, removing the propeller covers, the time when the pilot will check the weather forecast when the earth seems to be only populated by comrades. The sky was already gaining its color, the feast was already being prepared, only it was for others to profit from, they were already setting the table for the feast for which we would not be invited. Others would take all the risk…
—But here, what a pity…, Mermoz concluded.”

The company’s trips to Casablanca and Dakar soon amplified anecdotes and adventures well beyond aviation enthusiasts, but it was the opening of a long haul route with Latin America, as well as Aeroposta Argentina, the trans-Andean subsidiary in the South Cone, that made Mermoz, Guillaumet, Saint-Exupéry and the rest enter a legend.

Késsel, Saint-Exupéry, and later on, Romain Gary would build their own legend in literature by trying to depict a state of mind and intense, faithful camaraderie of the beginnings of aviation. They felt they were not only lucky to have seen or heard about Jean Mermoz or Henri Guillaumet endeavors across the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Sahara or the Andes but shared a bond at the heights of life affirmation.

Mermoz, Guillaumet, and Saint-Exupéry would die young in the place they would have chosen, had they been given a choice, leaving this world while up in the air while commanding their rudimentary planes with the Hispano-Suiza engines built by the company’s French subsidiary for the Armée de l’Air. Both Guillaumet and Saint-Exupéry’s planes were shot down by enemy fighters in the context of World War Two. Saint-Ex’s plane was destroyed by a German plane off the coast of Southern France, while Guillaumet’s was shot down by an Italian plane off the coast of Syria.

A one-off effort

When a pilot for Aéropostale’s subsidiary in the South Cone, Henri Guillaumet crashed his Potez 25 at Laguna del Diamante (Mendoza, Argentina). He had survived that time, walking over three mountain passes. He would explain later he had been tempted to give up, but the will to see his wife again had kept him walking.

Joseph Kessel, author of “Mermoz” (1938)

Another time, it was Mermoz who had assumed the responsibility of achieving the impossible, this time not only to save his own life but also that of his companions. On March 9, 1929, Jean Mermoz was crossing the Andes aboard a prototype Laté 25. His mechanic, Alexandre Collenot, and the president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Count Henry de La Vaulx were with him.

The weather conditions and a first engine problem forced Mermoz to land on a snow-covered mesa at 4,000 meters of altitude, over 13,000 feet. He was able to improvise and repair the plane, though the tricky take-off was a one-off attempt he managed with little fanfare. On A return flight from Chili to Argentine on the same plane, he was trapped in heavy wind updrafts, then pinned against the ground. This time the mechanical damage seemed irreparable.

Mermoz and Collenot attempted a desperate repair for three days. Knowing it was a no-go, Mermoz —he would later recognize— began thinking about the best way to tell Collenot he had a “risky” idea. He had envisioned a “take-off” plan that had good odds to propel the plane beyond a precipice and bounce back. With enough speed, the plane would manage to stabilize after a first downfall.

The plan worked as expected.

An education

In Mermoz, Joseph Kessel celebrates the days of the Aéropostale, not knowing they would suit as an example for the young pilots that would join De Gaulle in the Resistance:

“Happy are the men who suddenly find, in the revelation of a profession, the satisfaction of their hitherto uncertain desires and the rule for which they are made. But happier still those who, rich in contradictory passions, find in this profession their own key, the solution of their inner being and the point of balance between the tendencies which tear them apart!”

Above all, Kessel, Saint-Exupéry, and Gary were pilots at the beginning of aviation.

Also, guardians of the memory of Mermoz and Guillaumet.

“What makes the desert beautiful”, said the little prince, “is that it hides, somewhere, a well”.