The Little Prince

IN the interplanetary debris field between Mars and Jupiter is the asteroid 46610 Bésixdouze. Discovered in 1993, its name was suggested by Czech astronomer Jiří Grygar in honour of The Little Prince. The title character of that singular cosmic fairytale by Antoine de Saint-Exupery fell to Earth from a fictional asteroid designated B612, so this coding was rendered into phonetic French and hexadecimal notation for its real-life namesake. The author himself had drawn those specific figures from the registration of a plane he flew as an airmail pilot over the Sahara Desert in the 1920s.

Thus does the legend of Saint-Exupery – the French aristocrat turned pioneering aviator turned beloved author – continue to make its way across the universe. (There’s another asteroid named directly after him, 2578 Saint-Exupery, in the same “main belt” of the solar system, and a tiny moon called Petit-Prince orbits the asteroid 45 Eugenia.) Since The Little Prince was first published in 1941, it has become one of the world’s most widely translated books. Now available in more than 250 languages, it still sells more than two million copies a year.

The figures for 2015 have seen a major spike from a new animated film adaptation, with an English-version voice cast that includes Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams and Benicio Del Toro. For all the artistry involved in this latest retelling – the film’s lovely stop-motion design has clearly been informed by Saint-Exupery’s crude yet charming watercolour illustrations for the original novella – certain fans and scholars are sceptical. None more so, perhaps, than Howard Scherry, president and founder of the memorial organisation Remembering Saint-Exupery.

When asked his opinion of the new movie, Scherry refers to a particular chapter of The Little Prince, in which a lone businessman on some distant planet claims to own the stars, counting each one in his ledger with an eye to its compound financial value.

“[The book] is now in the hands of businessmen maximising profitability in a different medium,” says Scherry, before alluding to another passage from Saint-Exupery’s memoir Wind, Sand And Stars. “We sober sentinels oppose the rousing rebels who have capitalised on the classic fairytale for their own commercial purposes. [The film] has nil in common with what the author wrote and intended … ”

To be fair, Saint-Exupery’s intentions have never been entirely clear. If the meaning of most fairytales is necessarily transparent, The Little Prince remains pretty opaque. As narrated by a pilot who met the eponymous wanderer from asteroid B612 while marooned in the desert, his account of their brief friendship is filled with poetic and aphoristic statements that don’t so much impart a lesson as invite further contemplation.

“It is only with the heart that once can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” This “simple secret” is the closest the book comes to a moral – an observation that sounds drawn from a lifetime of experience, and an understanding that a young reader might take decades to grow into.

The text is certainly open to philosophical interpretations, as well as political ones. Saint-Exupery wrote it in New York in the summer of 1941. Having flown and fought with the French Air Force in their losing battle against Nazi invasion, he spent most of that year petitioning the United States to join the war in Europe.

To his contemporaries, the baobab trees that grow like weeds over the prince’s asteroid seemed relatively obvious symbols of spreading Nazism. His close friends, meanwhile, had no trouble recognising Saint-Exupery’s second wife Consuelo Suncin in the capricious flower that the prince is so unhappily devoted to.

Indeed, there are some who say the author’s whole turbulent life is bound up in this novella. Howard Scherry has described it as “more fact than fiction, an autobiography with a childlike framework”.

The broad strokes of the story have their origin in Saint-Exupery’s near-fatal desert ordeal of December 1935, when he and navigator Andre Prevot were stranded for days in the Sahara; dehydrated, hallucinating, dying, until saved by a passing Bedouin. The fox tamed by the little prince had a real-world analogue too – a wild fennec that became Saint-Exupery’s half-domesticated pet while he was Aeropostal stopover manager at the remote Camp Juby airfield in Spanish South Morocco. (His duties there included negotiating the safe release of fellow airmail pilots downed and captured by Moors.)

The Little Prince himself is something of a cypher, apparently inspired in part by a Polish refugee boy he saw on a train to Moscow while reporting for the newspaper Paris-Soir shortly before the outbreak of the second world war. “A little Mozart … ” he wrote, “… a life full of beautiful promise. [But] this little Mozart will be stamped like the rest by the common stamping machine.”

By all accounts, Saint-Exupery was also thinking of his younger brother, who died at 15 of rheumatic fever, and who “fell as gently as a tree falls” – an image transferred directly from his memory into the final pages of his fairytale. The author himself died soon after writing it, though disappeared remains the more accurate word. Despite his relatively advanced age of 44, he was permitted to fly reconnaissance missions for the Free French Air Force toward the end of the war in Europe. On July 31, 1944, his P-38 Lightning aircraft vanished somewhere over the Bay of Biscay, and Saint-Exupery was never seen again (though a bracelet and part of his flight suit were found by fishermen in 1998, and a section of his plane was discovered by a diver in 2000).

More than 70 years on, his assorted novels and memoirs – Night Flight, Flight To Arras, Wind, Sand And Stars – remain vital documents from the early days of aviation, when the aeroplane, as he once put it, “unveiled for us the true face of the Earth”.

“Read what you will of Saint-Exupery,” advises Howard Scherry, his most passionate advocate. “You will gain a great deal. It may come to pass that his literary work will burn within you like the finest fire lit … ”

But if he’s best remembered for The Little Prince, it’s because the story serves as a kind of reversible telescope. For young readers, it points into the future, toward the heartaches of adulthood and the bravery required to face them. For grown-ups, it shows the world the way it looked when you were a child. Smaller and smaller, ever further away, but still visible through the right lens.


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