I was eight then. My eyes were bigger, rounder, more innocent. And they widened all the more as they closely studied a book no larger than my Grade Two textbooks. It was so thin that it was held by only two of Mama’s dainty fingers. “Sige na, read it. It’s for kids,” she said with a smile. On the cover was a boy with golden locks. He was standing on what looked like the moon (as a child, I never believed it was made of cheese), overlooking the stars which seemed so close that he could easily grab one if he just tried to stretch his arm out.
The Little Prince was the very first novel that I ever read. “Baobab tree,” “tipsy,” “conceited” and “boa constrictor” sent me on frequent trips to the family dictionary, which I swore was half of how much I weighed. “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye,” the fox would whisper to the blond, little boy. I’m pretty sure that not only the prince or I have learned from this deep, dark yet “very simple” secret of the wisest fox there ever was. Le Petit Prince might have been a part of everyone’s life one way or another. After all, this children’s fable, which has been translated into 150 languages, is the best-selling book after the Bible and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, according to Petri Liukkonen, Director of Kuusankoski Library in Finland. In the 20th century, it was already considered a children’s classic. We know about the little prince all right, his rose, the fox, the men on the planets. But what about the character who, as a child, drew a boa constrictor digesting an entire elephant, which only ended up looking like a hat? The pilot, many say, was inspired by the very person of the author/illustrator himself: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
His friends called him Saint-Ex, as told by Jean Paul and Rebecca Nalette in their Panorama 2: Lectures Faciles. Antoine Marie Roger de Saint-Exupéry was born in Lyon, France in 1900 to a noble family. His father was an insurance company executive while his mother was an artist. He went to Jesuit schools and was later sent to a Catholic boarding school in Switzerland in 1915 through 1917. After his dream of joining the Navy was crushed by a failed examination, Antoine then decided to go for the next best yet extremely dangerous thing in the military service: aviation. In 1922, he was granted his pilot’s license and was even offered a post at the air force, which he refused after objections were raised by his novelist fiancée Louise de Vilmorin’s family. This eventually brought him to an office job in Paris where he began to write. Somehow, writing was the only way he could fill the void that flying had left. Fate wasn’t so kind though. Louise ended the engagement and broke Antoine’s heart. There probably came a time when land already wore him down that he chose to fly again. He delivered mail for Aeropostale, a commercial airplane company. Several brushes with death later, he was appointed director of a remote camp in Juby airfield in Rio de Ora, Sahara, where he settled for a while and also wrote his first novel, Southern Mail (1929). It partly told of his failed love affair with Louise de Vilmorin.
He later moved to South America where he was named director of Aeroposta Argentina Company, which sent him flying post through the Andes. Unfortunately, though, the company got bankrupt and had to close down. Antoine then began his life as a journalist for Paris Soir, boldly flying to Spain, Russia, and Germany and covering incidents such as the May Day events in Moscow in 1936 and the Spanish Civil War. His was an adventurous and treacherous life. He once persuaded Air France to let him fly a Caudron Simmoun that ended up in a plane crash in 1935 in North Africa. With no food or water, he walked for days until he was rescued by a passing caravan. Naturally, being the daredevil that he was, in 1937, he bought another Caudron Simmoun which caused another aviation accident in Guatemala, giving him severe injuries. As to the wounds of the heart that love once left him, they slowly healed until 1931, when he gave it another shot and married a widow, Consuelo Goméz Carillo. Consuelo moved in the same circle as some members of the Western literati such as Maurice de Maeterlinck and Gabriele D’ Annunzio. The marriage, however, was not a happy one. Consuelo was a neglected and jealous wife as Antoine was not home often and also had affairs with other women. Many scholars interpret the rare rose that was left by the boy on Asteroid B6-12 in The Little Prince as Consuelo.
In 1939, France was at war with Germany and Antoine served the army. Not long after, Hitler’s troops already occupied most of France and Antoine could not seem to swallow defeat. He fled to America and continued to write. It was here that he published his most celebrated opus, Le Petit Prince. His other works include Night Flight (1931), an international bestseller that was awarded the Prix Femina and was even adapted for the silver screen, starring Clark Gable of Gone With the Wind fame and Lionel Barrymore. Wind, Sand and Stars (1939), which won the French Academy’s 1939 Grand Prix du Roman and the National Book Award in the United States, was about his profession as a pilot while Flight to Arras (1942) told of a failed reconnaissance mission. By the time that he was 42, during World War II, Antoine became a spy for the Allies. On the 31st of July, 1944, he flew from an airstrip in Sardinia. And he was never to be seen again.
In 2004, six decades since Antoine’s disappearance, the twisted wreckage of his Lockheed Lightning P-38 was finally found on the Mediterranean seabed not far from the cliffs of Provence. The key to the recovery of France’s “holy grail,”---as Philippe Castellano, who helped identify the debris, would call it---was a tail piece bearing a tiny serial number: 2734L. It was the last plane Antoine ever flew. A great part of the mystery has yet to be solved though. No definite answer could be given as to what caused the crash. Theories have ranged from hostile gunfire to suicide.
Antoine’s image appeared on the nation’s 50-franc note until the Euro currency came in 2002. In Lyon, Antoine’s hometown, planes land on and take off from the Saint-Exupéry International Airport. CBS News reported that certain authorities even claimed that Saint-Exupéry fans resisted the efforts of identifying the plane, for they wanted to “keep the mystery alive.” “He who has gone, so we but cherish his memory, abides with us, more potent, nay, more present than the living man,” Antoine once said.
For an entire century, this is what has become of the real-life Peter Pan who never did grow up. His thirst for adventure was never quite quenched and his zest for life only seemed to prove that he indeed belonged to the heavens. Consuelo, Antoine’s last love, could not have said it better when she wrote in Memoires de la Rose, “He wasn’t like other people but like a child or an angel who has fallen down from the sky.”
Perhaps, just like the Little Prince, Antoine had to stay here on earth awhile, if only to teach every wide-eyed child (and the child within) about the terror of a hat, the responsibility for what one has tamed, the love of one’s own rose, the laughter of the stars, the most beautiful and most enduring yet simplest secret known to man. And then, he’d fly again.