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Cult of subtle satire

14 January 2010

Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is a story about childhood, mortality, friendship, love, hope and the magic in our lives that we are at risk of losing as we grow older, writes Naina Dey

Once when I was six years old I saw a beautiful picture in a book about the primeval forest called True Stories. It showed a boa constrictor swallowing an animal…
I then reflected deeply upon the adventures in the jungle and in turn succeeded in making my first drawing with a colour pencil…
I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups and asked them if my drawing frightened them.
They answered: ‘Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?’ My drawing did not represent a hat. It was supposed to be a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. So I made another drawing of the inside of the boa constrictor to enable the grown-ups to understand. They always need explanations…
The grown-ups then advised me to give up my drawings of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and to devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic and grammar. Thus it was that I gave up a magnificent career as a painter at the age of six.”

WRITTEN by the French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943 in The Bevin House on New York’s Long Island, The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) is considered by many as a far superior antecedent to Paulo Coelho’s iconic best-seller The Alchemist. Exupéry’s book not only begins with the author’s growing awareness of an uncomprehending adult world but the loss of his child’s vision. Most versions of the novella include a number of delightful drawings by Saint-Exupéry himself, and is a simple tale of a pilot who is grounded in the desert and a young prince.
   The narrator’s point of view is interleaved in the first nine chapters and changes from third person to first person. Though ostensibly a children’s book, The Little Prince makes several profound and idealistic points about life and human nature. As the prince journeys the planets around his own home, Asteroid B612, he encounters a variety of individuals: the Conceited Man, the King, the Accountant, the Drunkard, the Geographer and the Lamplighter. Each one becomes a parable of human nature, or rather, the nature of adults. The Little Prince is a story about childhood, mortality, friendship, love, hope and the magic in our lives that we are at risk of losing as we grow older.
   But what made Exupéry write the book? It begins with the author talking about being marooned in the desert in a damaged aircraft. Doubtless, this account was drawn from his own ordeal in the Sahara — an experience he had already recorded in his book Wind, Sand and Stars (1939). On 30 December 1935 at 14:45, after an 18 hour and 36 minute flight, Saint-Exupéry, along with his navigator André Prévot, crashed in the Libyan Sahara desert en route to Saigon while attempting to fly from Paris to Saigon in record time for a prize of 150,000 francs. Both  survived the crash, but were then faced with rapid dehydration in the Sahara. Lost in the desert with a few grapes, a single orange, and some wine, the duo had only one day’s worth of liquids. Sometime between the second and the third day the two were so dehydrated that they stopped sweating altogether and began to see mirages which were quickly followed by more vivid hallucinations. Finally, on the fourth day, a bedouin on a camel discovered them and administered native dehydration treatment that saved Saint-Exupéry and Prévot’s lives. In the desert, Saint-Exupéry had met a fennec (desert sand fox), which had most likely inspired him to create the fox character in the book. In a 1918 letter he had written to his sister Didi from Cape Juby he talks about raising a fennec he adored.
   The essence of the book is not only contained in its simple yet eternally acknowledged truths but in its subtle sarcasm of the adult world. Therefore, the actual naming of the asteroid B612 acquires significance as it illustrates how one culture dominates the other on the basis of power structures. According to the book, the asteroid was sighted by a Turkish astronomer in 1909 who had then made a formal demonstration of his discovery to the International Astronomical Congress. But no one believed him because of his Turkish attire. Years later when the same astronomer repeated his demonstration, dressed in an elegant suit, everybody was convinced.
   In 2003, a small asteroid moon (discovered in 1998), was named Petit-Prince after the Little Prince. Another asteroid 2578 Saint-Exupéry was named after the author. In 1997, Jean-Pierre Davidts wrote a sequel to The Little Prince, entitled Le petit prince retrouvé (The Little Prince Returns) in which the narrator is a shipwrecked man who encounters the Little Prince on a lone island; the Prince has returned to find help against a tiger who threatens his sheep. In 2007, Katherine Pardue and Elisabeth Mitchell wrote about the search of a new flower for the Little Prince, because the sheep ate his rose in “Les nouvelles aventures du petit prince” (The New Adventures of the Little Prince). The Museum in Hakone, Japan, features outdoor squares and sculptures like The B 612 Asteroid, The Lamplighter Square, the sculpture of the Little Prince.
   The novella has inspired diverse art forms since its release. Actor Richard Burton won the 18th Annual Grammy Award in the category of Best Children’s Recording for his 1974 narration of Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni played a concert programme in 1979-1980. It was called The Little Prince. The whole concept of the programme was based on the story and the philosophy of the book. The song “Little Prince” was released by American Alternative Goth Rock band Psychotica on their self-titled release, whereas Greek band Raining Pleasure included a song called “My Planet B612” on their 1998 album Nostalgia.
   A film musical adaptation titled The Little Prince was made in 1974 by composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner. The film, despite its failure at the box office, became somewhat of a cult classic. The Adventures of The Little Prince — a Japanese anime series based on the book — was aired in Europe and North America in the 1980s. In it, the Little Prince often travelled to earth to help people. In 1990, German director Theo Kerp released Der Kleine Prinz, a cartoon animation of the book. In 1964, Russian composer Lev Knipper composed an opera called The Little Prince and on 1 January 2000, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation by Bonnie Greer of a new translation into English of The Little Prince starring Robert Powell as the aviator and narrator and Garrett Moore as the Little Prince.
   An audio adaptation of the book was made in 1954, with the French actor Gérard Philipe as the narrator, Jacques Grello as the fox, and Georges Poujouly as the Little Prince. A French-language musical, Le Petit Prince, by composer Riccardo Cocciante, ran at the Casino de Paris from October 2002 to January 2003. It was revived at the Shanghai Oriental Art Centre in July 2007, and in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in January 2008. The book was adapted into a play in India by Capt Rigved and performed by Rashi Bunny in 2008-2009. These are just a few examples of how Exupery’s book has influenced literature and popular culture. Possibly the most beautiful book of the twentieth-century, The Little Prince continues to appeal to its readers because of its easy readability and the intriguing questions that it poses before them that merge into a simplistic yet credible self-realisation at its conclusion.

The writer is senior lecturer in English, Maharaja Manindra Chandra College, Kolkata.

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