Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (29 June 1900 – 31 July 1944) was an author and an aviator. His most famous written work is the novella ‘The Little Prince’, a deeply engaging and moving tale exploring what really matters in life through the eyes of an alien child-prince.
The story begins when the narrator crashes his aeroplane, isolated from civilisation by 1000’s of miles of uninhabited desert in all directions. He is astonished to wake up with the little prince before him, the boy demanding that the pilot draw him a sheep. Drawing simple things that adults lack the imagination to see deeper meaning in is a throwback to the narrator’s childhood and through which the pair bond.
The tale continues to reveal the background of the little prince, the tiny asteroid on which he grew up, his special rose and his experiences visiting the sole inhabitants of similarly tiny asteroids.
Each asteroid visit teaches the little prince something about ‘human’ nature due to the misplaced priorities of the sole residents. Finally, the little prince visits Earth. The narrator explains that Earth is also inhabited by folk preoccupied with ‘matters of importance’: “111 kings . . . 7000 geographers, 900,000 businessmen, 7,500,000 tipplers, 311,000,000 conceited men; that is to say, about 2,000,000,000 grown-ups.”.
It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
Anyway, no more of that in case too much of the story is given away… Suffice it to say that it is a wonderful story for adults and children alike.
Perhaps it’s even more important for adults to read it to reconnect with the things that really matter: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”, or in the original French: “Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”. This is one of many breathtaking quotes from the book waking us up to the importance of friendship, love, laughter and timelessness rather than busy-ness, money, possessions and other distractions.
The book is clearly inspired from the author’s life. Whilst on a military flight, Saint-Exupéry himself crash landed in the Sahara desert. It is about this experience that he wrote the book ‘Terre des Hommes’, translated into English as ‘Wind, Sand and Stars’ and in which he noted that “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away”. He was an artist – the illustrations throughout The Little Prince are the author’s own. Saint-Exupéry was self deprecating about his artistic talent, as referenced at the very start of the novella, but to me the watercolour paintings are simple, sublime and the perfect accompaniment to the text.
Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away
Quite sadly, but strangely fitting, is Saint-Exupéry’s disappearance in 1944. Flying with the Free French Air Force, Saint-Exupéry was on a reconnaissance flight to observe German troop movements. He did not return from the flight and it is thought that the plane crashed into the Mediterranean.
A disappearance, with no confirmation of death or final location seems a remarkable mirror to The Little Prince.