September 18, 2011

Le Petit Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

It has been a bit of a joke of mine that there is only room in my brain for one language other than English. So when I learned and became fluent in Swahili, I had to delete my French in order to make room. However I have since discovered that the French is still there, just a bit rusty from lack of use.

This summer when I was in Paris, I picked up a copy of Le Petit Prince from a book stall on the left bank of the Seine. This is a book that I read back in high school French class and remembered liking it a lot, though I couldn't remember any of the plot. I also remember that most of the class (probably all of the class - there were only 6 of us!) tracked down English translations and read the book in English rather than French. And I remember that we had to write an essay on the book; though fortunately I don't remember what I wrote about - probably some pompous BS (as are most high school essays) regurgitating something that the teacher had told us.

I've had a very stressful week. Actually, make that a very stressful 6 months that flared up into an acute state of stress a week ago. This was a perfect book for me to be reading this week. Those vague impressions of liking the book back in high school proved to be true.

It is a hard book to describe for those of you who haven't read it as there are so many layers to the story. On the surface, the narrator crashes his plane in the middle of the Sahara desert where he meets a young boy. It turns out that this boy (the Little Prince) has traveled from a tiny astroid far far away, via some other stars, to the earth in search of some friends. He is now trying to get back to his own planet.

Along his journey he encounters a series of people and animals and each encounter is almost a little morality tale unto itself. He encounters a series of people who show to him the ridiculousness of many people - a king with no one to rule over; a drunk who drinks to forget the shame of being a drunk; a businessman who acquires things for the sake of acquiring them; and a geographer too proud to go exploring to have something to write about.

On the earth he meets a fox who teaches him the message that he needs to learn, which the Little Prince then shares with the narrator. That what is truly important is invisible to the eyes and can only be seen with the heart. To the Little Prince, his rose that he left behind on his planet (the rose that he escaped due to her vanity and self-centredness) is important since she depends on him for protection. To the narrator, it is the relationship that he develops with the Little Prince that is important.

I could list so many favourite quotes from this book that I would lose any readers for this posting, so I will try to limit myself to just a few (all translations by me).

"Nous écrivons des choses éternelles." (We write of the eternal things.)

"Mais si tu m'apprivoises, nous aurons besion l'un de l'autre. Tu serais pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde." (The fox to the prince - But if you tame me, we will need each other. You will be unique to me; and I will be unique to you.)

"On ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. C'est le temps que tu as perdu pour ta rose qui fait ta rose si importante. Les hommes ont oublié cette vérité. Mais tu de doeis pas l'oublier." (We don't see except with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eyes. It is the time that you have spent on your rose that makes your rose so important. Men have forgotten this truth, but you must not forget.)

"On est seul aussi chez les hommes." (You are also alone when you are with men/humans.)

"Les grandes personnes sont décidément très très bizarres." (Adults are decidedly very, very bizarre."

"Ce sera comme si je t'avais donné, au lieu d'étoiles, des tas de petits grelots qui savent rire..." (It will be like I have given you, in the place of the stars, little bells that know how to laugh..)

Reading this book reminded me of another quote from high school, this time from English class. "No man is an Island, entire of itself; ... because I am involved in mankind." (John Donne - my very favourite English-language poet). Both the Little Prince and the narrator learn that it is relationships that are important to this life.

Another quote that came to mind is, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3) The innocence and child-like curiosity of the Little Prince are highlighted throughout the book; and yet he is the one that learns and teaches true wisdom at the end.

I'm glad that I was reading this book in the original French (with a dictionary at my side to look up the occasional word that i didn't know), since it forced me to read more slowly and take in every word rather than skimming. And I'm glad that I re-read this book this week. All is going to be OK with the world. I have a feeling that this book is going to be on my "to-reread-regularly" list.


Buried In Print said...

It is such a sweet and lovely tale, isn't it. It's not one that I had to study in school (we studied his Vol de Nuit), but I discovered it by buying a copy in French on a school trip to Montreal (the novelty of a French bookstore was overwhelming...still is, in some ways) and fell in love immediately.

Kate said...

Buried in Print - I think that my 34-year-old self appreciates this book a lot more than my 16-year-old self did. I've never read anything else by Saint-Exupéry - would your recommend Vol de Nuit?

Buried In Print said...

I'm not sure my 16-year-old self can be trusted to recommend (or not!) Vol de Nuit. But I can say that I hung onto it, so something must have resonated with me...