Today I want to write about a French book; I want to hold up the humanity of a French writer, who fought and died for the freedom of France in 1944, against the mindless hatred of those who committed the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. I want to talk about a book for children that should be read by adults: a book about human nature, of love and friendship and, inevitably – given the author – the Sahara. I want to talk about The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
“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.”
As it happens, The Little Prince is one of the few childhood favourites that endured into adulthood with me (and the only book that I’ve ever read in French) but until today, I had no intention to blog about it in any hurry; I’ve got plenty of other books to blog about. But in the wake of the Paris attacks, I recall this book because it’s about everything that terrorists aren’t. When Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince, during World War II, France and Europe were living some of the darkest hours of their history – but there’s no war in this book, nor is the book about France. It’s a fable of humanity. And at this moment, when we are hurt and are perhaps full of hatred and a desire for revenge, above all we need a touch of humanity. There’s no-one better qualified to remind us of this than Saint-Exupéry, the man who could still write a beautiful book about love and friendship while he played a deadly hide-and-seek with German fighters among the clouds.
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me….”
You probably think: Right, and so now we’re going to fight terrorism with a children’s book? Don’t make me laugh!… But books are powerful. Books make us better people. Books enhance our understanding of the world and teach us to appreciate it. Books are a force for good which is why so often they get burned by atrocious regimes. And the values this particular book taught us and continues to teach to our children are the values that people who bomb concert venues and restaurants do not understand.
“What makes the desert beautiful,’ said the little prince, ‘is that somewhere it hides a well…”
If you don’t know The Little Prince, you can read a very thorough entry about it on Wikipedia, plot, morals and Saint-Exupéry’s life included. But I suggest you pick up the book instead; it’s a very short novel, easily read in an hour or so. After all, literature is for reading, not for reading about.
“You’re beautiful, but you’re empty…One couldn’t die for you. Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I’ve watered. Since she’s the one I put under glass, since she’s the one I sheltered behind the screen. Since she’s the one for whom I killed the caterpillars (except the two or three butterflies). Since she’s the one I listened to when she complained, or when she boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing at all. Since she’s my rose.”
The Little Prince is narrated by a pilot who crash-landed in the Sahara: thousands of miles away from every human habitation he encounters the little prince who seems neither tired, nor thirsty or hungry, nor scared like a lost child should be. Gradually the pilot finds out his story: how, hurt in his love for a rose, the little prince decided to leave his home planet – a tiny asteroid with three volcanoes, one of which he uses to cook his dinners on – and harnessed a passing flock of birds to go travelling around the solar system.
“If you love a flower that lives on a star, it is sweet to look at the sky at night. All the stars are a-bloom with flowers…”
Over the course of eight days in the desert, the story of the pilot and the story of the little prince are told side by side: the pilot’s struggle for survival as he desperately tries to mend his aeroplane and find water and the experiences of the little prince on his travels. The poetically inclined musings of the little prince are punctuated by the prosaic concerns of the pilot. Their interaction drives the plot forward until its haunting finish.
“The night had fallen. I had let my tools drop from my hands.
Of what moment now was my hammer, my bolt, or thirst, or death? On one star, one planet, my planet, the Earth, there was a little prince to be comforted. I took him in my arms, and rocked him. I said to him:
“The flower that you love is not in danger. I will draw you a muzzle for your sheep. I will draw you a railing to put around your flower. I will –“ I did not know what to say to him. I felt awkward and blundering. I did not know how I could reach him, where I could overtake him and go on hand in hand with him once more. It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”
For those of us who read The Little Prince it’s hard to believe that this gentle children’s book was burned by the Argentinean government in Buenos Aires, in June 1980 – during the days of the dictatorship. So just what’s in this children’s book that frightens dictators? The poet Juan Gelman explained:
“Look, words are like the air: they belong to everybody. Words are not the problem; it’s the tone, the context, where those words are aimed, and in whose company they are uttered. Of course murderers and victims use the same words, but I never read the words utopia, or beauty, or tenderness in police descriptions. Do you know that the Argentinean dictatorship burnt The Little Prince? And I think they were right to do so, not because I do not love The Little Prince, but because the book is so full of tenderness that it would harm any dictatorship.”
It’s much easier to pick up a machine gun and kill people than to learn their language and talk to them. It’s much easier to hate than to love. It’s much easier to destroy than to build… It’s much easier to be told what to think than to think for yourself. The people who who attacked Paris last week are lost in ignorance, frightened by what they don’t understand. Their minds are closed and our freedom is an affront to them.
But against their hatred we set our humanity, against their bombs our books, and against their acts of terror our unwavering commitment to freedom. And we will win.
“What are you trying to say?”
“All men have the stars,” he answered, “but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems. For my businessman they are wealth. But all these stars are silent. You – only you – will have stars that can laugh!”
And he laughed again.
“And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure…”