The first time I read The Little Prince I was twelve and naturally read it in English. This was when pop psychology ruled my thinking, and I saw the book as a fictionalised dialogue between the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and his inner child. I recently reread this novella, this time in French, which gave it a different flavour in my mind – more intellectual and whimsical at the same time. With this reading, I’m more struck by what it says about human nature in broader political contexts than with the personal and psychological. From here it was easy to see how it reflects the age we’re living in now.
Early in the story, the little prince asks a stranded aviator to draw him a sheep. After a couple of awkward attempts, the aviator draws a picture of a box with some holes in it and tells the prince the sheep is in the box. The prince accepts this and their friendship is cemented. In the present day, I’ll call this image the current British government, who received the picture of the box from the Leave campaign. I don’t think I need to explain this metaphor in any great detail. Any sensible person knows that the box is filled with the likes of a well-funded NHS, a robust economy and a lucrative trade deal with the remaining EU. The air holes are there to make this world seem real, a place where people live and breathe.
Another passage reflects pertinently in our age of the internet. The little prince climbs up to the top of a mountain and calls out to see if anyone is there. All he gets is an echo, which he mistakes for conversation.
The story also has plenty of characters suited for today’s headlines – an illogical king who claims he controls the movement of the starts, a vain man who craves attention, but whose vanity keeps him isolated, and a geographer who draws maps, but never leaves his own desk to experience the world he has helped to construct. I don’t think I need to mention the true life characters by name.
I’ve met people who reread Le Petit Prince every few years or once a decade. I don’t think I’ll join either of those clubs. Having read it once as a child going through puberty and now in my middle-age, my next appointment with this book could be in my very-old age. Who knows what metaphors, insights, ideas this little literary gem will conjure up then.