Seventy years after his plane was tragically shot down, we are still no closer to knowing which of the Nazi Luftwaffe pilots – Horst Rippert or Robert Heichele – ended the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Miguel Fernández Martínez
On the 31st of July 1944, at 8:45am, Saint-Exupéry took off from Borgo, Corsica, in an old Lockheed P-38 F5B fighter plane for a routine reconnaissance mission. It was to be his last.
The French fighter pilot lost his life during his final mission, but he had already written the book that would assure his status as an iconic and timeless literary figure, and one of the most widely read authors in the world.
His masterpiece was “The Little Prince” (1943), and it outshone all of his other achievements as a writer.
None of his other works, including “Southern Mail” (1928), “Night Flight” (1931) and “Fighter Pilot” (1939) among others, ever succeeded in seducing the millions of readers around the world who fell in love with the little blond boy with his blue cape, who would become a point of reference for countless generations.
“The Little Prince” is one of the most widely circulated literary works. Over 140 million copies have now been sold in every corner of the planet, and translations exist in over 250 languages and dialects. It has even been adapted into Braille.
Originally published in New York on the 6th of April 1943, “The Little Prince” is now one of the world’s most widely read books, more so than classic works of literature such as “Don Quixote”, “Rayuela” and “100 Years of Solitude”.
But as his plane took off for the final time on the 31st of July 1944, Saint-Exupéry could not have imagined the future of his book.
“All big people were children once, although few of them remember it.”
“The Little Prince” may be a love story told with a child’s voice, but it has given millions of adults cause for reflection as they see themselves mirrored in the confined space of Asteroid B-612.
According to Japanese researcher Yukitaka Hirao, in his book “A Guide to the Three Countries of Central America”, Saint-Exupéry was inspired by Armenia, a small town in the Sonsonate region of El Salvador. This is because it was the birthplace of his wife, Consuelo Suncín.
The baobab trees, the three volcanoes, the serpent and the rose that accompany the protagonist in this unique story are all connected, in one way or another, to this small Central American country: the native soil of the Gallic author’s unrivalled muse.
His turbulent and passionate relationship with his Salvadorian wife Consuelo is captured perfectly on the pages of “The Little Prince”, through the self-descriptive metaphor of a child hoping for a better world.
“It was the time you spent with your rose that made it so important”, wrote Saint-Exupéry. Despite his turbulent life, he had found love with a woman – an exotic woman, in that time – which moved him enough to leave a tribute for posterity.
For Antoine, Consuelo Suncín was the most beautiful rose in the world, and her Salvadorian spirit is writ large on every page of “The Little Prince”.
“It is much more difficult to judge yourself than to judge others. If you manage to judge yourself correctly, you will be truly wise.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was born to a wealthy family in Lyon. He was the third of five children born to Count Jean de Saint-Exupéry, from whom he inherited his noble title.
He toyed with the idea of becoming a sailor, an artist or an architect before finally entering the world of aviation, which would lead him to the skies above all four corners of the earth.
Whether flying above Africa, Argentina or the Sahara Desert, Saint-Exupéry always enjoyed time alone to explore his own thoughts.
His new bird’s eye view of the bigger picture allowed him to use the techniques of both journalism and narrative as he recounted his experiences. He also narrated those of others; his tireless observation amounted to a lifelong study of the human species that finally took shape as an entirely new form of discourse – held within the pages of his crowning literary achievement.
Seven decades later, Saint-Exupéry is still undoubtedly present among us, whether on the shelves of bookshops or the shelves of our own bedrooms where there are millions of little Princes, just waiting to be rediscovered.
(Translated by Roz Harvey)