Have you read—or even heard of—a novella called The Little Prince? No? Me neither. The Little Prince was first published in English and French in 1943. Remarkably it is one of the best selling and most translated books ever. In fact I knew nothing about it or its author (French impoverished aristocrat, pioneer aviator, and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) until just the other day when I began a book, The Prince of the Skies, a historical novel by Spanish author Antonio Iturbe, and published in English earlier this year, in a translation by Melbourne-based Dr Lilit Žekulin Thwaites.
The Prince of the Skies first appeared in 2017 as A Cielo Abierto (not to be confused with the 2000 Spanish movie of that name), and tells the story of three French pioneer aviators from 1922 to their deaths in the 1930s and 1940s, but from the perspective of Saint-Exupéry.
The book opens in 1922 with Saint-Exupéry, a sublieutenant in the French air force, taking to the sky over Paris in primitive biplane. He dreamed of being as free as a bird, and indeed much of the book reflects the freedom that he and the other aviators felt once they were airborne.
All three took positions with a company that carried the mail between southern France and Spain, and on to North Africa, following the desert and coast south to Senegal. Flying was hazardous, particularly over the Pyrenees, arduous, and not without considerable danger. The death toll among pilots was not inconsiderable. The companies they worked for were the forerunners of Air France and Aerolineas Argentinas, among others.
But Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, and Guillaumet led, for a while, charmed lives but not without aviation upsets.
All three were posted to Argentina to open up air mail routes between Brazil and Buenos Aires, and south through Patagonia. Saint-Exupéry was charged with opening a route between Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, flying high over the Andes at the limits of aviation in those early years. In 1930 Guillaumet crashed at over 3000 m on his 92nd flight on this route, and extraordinarily took a week to climb and walk out of the mountains.
Mermoz set about establishing a non-stop service between Dakar in Senegal and Natal in northeast Brazil, the shortest crossing of the South Atlantic, but not without its challenges as the route crosses the Intertropical Convergence Zone, well known (and respected) for its turbulent weather. The crossing from Dakar would take 15 hours or more, with just one pilot. Initially flown by seaplanes, aviation technology soon developed to permit land-based aircraft to make the trip. But it was on what would be his last flight in December 1936 that Mermoz’s plane disappeared fours hours after departing from Dakar. He and his mechanic were never found.
Henri Guillaumet joined the Free French Air Force at the outbreak of war in 1939, and was shot down and killed over the eastern Mediterranean in 1940.
Saint-Exupéry was a dreamer and a reluctant writer who agonized, it seems, over every word and paragraph. Nevertheless his work was spotted by influential writers and publishers, and his books won prestigious prizes.
His personal life was complicated. Originally engaged to society beauty and writer Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin, he never got over the breakdown in their relationship having been cast aside, not deemed worthy enough by her family. He married Salvadoran writer and artist Consuelo Suncín de Sandoval in Buenos Aires in 1930 and their somewhat turbulent marriage did survive until his death.
After spending a couple of years in the USA from 1940, Saint-Exupéry joined the Free French Air Force in North Africa. He crashed in mysterious circumstances off the coast of the South of France in 1944. His body was never recovered.
The Little Prince was eventually published posthumously in France after the liberation in August 1944. Saint-Exupéry’s books had been banned in Vichy France.
I enjoyed this book, which I selected on spec from our local public library. Iturbe has really brought the chief protagonists to life, and has certainly shown how much we—who take aviation for granted as we criss-cross the globe (pandemic permitting nowadays)—owe to the early aviators who trail-blazed air routes across the continents in the flimsiest and often unreliable (as well as uncomfortable) aircraft. All three aviators are celebrated today in various memorials in France, in literature, and cinema.
Obviously I haven’t read the book in its original Spanish, but translator Žekulin Thwaites has a neat turn of phrase throughout which makes for an easy and enjoyable read.
The Prince of the Skies is published by Macmillan (ISBN 978-1-5290-6333-2).