Thursday, January 6, 2011

Le Petit Prince

It's the first week of the New Year and, for many people, New Year's resolutions are still somewhere near the front of their mind. Their desire to get fit, or save money, or travel, or whatever, is still jostling for space with their grocery list, work to-do list, and the million other things that will eventually crowd out their resolutions. But the thing is, if resolutions were more interesting (or seemed like they would be more fulfilling) they might be easier to follow-through with. What if we decided to see the world the way children do? For starters, I would suggest revisiting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince.

I didn't read Le Petit Prince as a kid, so I'm not sure how I would have viewed it in the context of a children's story, but as an adult reader it stunned me. The story is, on the surface, a simple one. Adults, the narrator tells us at the beginning (he is an adult, himself), are boring because they need everything explained to them. The implication here is that children, despite their constant repetition of "why," just get stuff. The narrator sees himself as the grown-up version of these children; he is bored by adults and their lack of imagination and as a result lives alone and only makes cursory efforts to interact.

The narrator is a pilot, and after crashing in the Sahara, he sets about to repair his plane before his water supply runs out. But he is interrupted by a small voice saying (in one of the story's more famous lines) "dessine-moi un mouton" (draw me a sheep). After several failed attempts – one that's too sick, one that's actually a goat, one that's too old – the narrator gets a bit frustrated and draws a box; the sheep, he says, is inside. Of course, the recipient is delighted, because now the sheep, no longer constrained by outward appearance, can be exactly the sheep he wants. Of course, this small-voiced recipient is the Petit Prince himself. 

The Petit Prince has come from another planet – asteroid B 612, the narrator guesses – and wants the sheep to keep him company when he returns. His only friend there, he says, is his flower, which he will protect from the sheep. The Petit Prince tells the narrator all sorts of details about his planet, about the baobab trees, about the volcanoes he has to deactivate, about how lonely it is to be the only inhabitant, despite all the maintenance work the planet requires of him. The Petit Prince tells the narrator about harnessing a flock of birds to visit other planets, where he discovered numerous personalities: a king, a vain man in search of an admirer, a drinker, a businessman, a lamp-lighter, a writer, and finally the Petit Prince found his way to Earth, where he encounters the narrator, a pilot.

The Petit Prince's story is a strange one and, although the narrator fancies himself quite imaginative, I always got the impression that as he listened to the Petit Prince he did so with that kind of indulgent, wide-eyed look adults sometimes have when listening to children. But, as the Petit Prince's story takes him farther and farther away from his beloved flower and his little planet, the tone shifts from the excitement of adventure to anxiety and sadness over a home he can't get back to. By the end, the narrator is quite as serious about the Petit Prince's story as the Petit Prince himself.

There are a lot of ways to interpret Le Petit Prince –  is the Petit Prince the representation of the narrator's childhood self? Does he represent all childhood on the inevitable, and irreversible, path of growing up? Is it just a bedtime story to delight children and open up their dreams to new possibilities? Is he a hallucination of the recently-crashed pilot, our narrator? – but the nice thing about this sort of literature is that you don't have to decide what it means in order to enjoy it. Rather, like the narrator, simply allowing yourself to be taken into the world of the Petit Prince without that adult, indulgent smile is enough to prove that beyond all the day-to-day stuff you deal with, your imagination is still happily alive and waiting to be exercised.

Le Petit Prince
by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
First published in 1943 (cover image shown from Folio edition)

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