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Saint-Exupery, writer of world’s third best-seller

Published on 07/04/2004

PARIS, April 7 (AFP) - French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a man who embodied the heroism of his age, who flew perilous missions at the height of World War II, but bequeathed to the world a tender fable of the power of love and the follies of mankind.

Few children’s bookshelves are complete without a copy of “The Little Prince”, which according to some is the third most widely sold book on the planet after “The Bible” and “Das Kapital”.

The whimsical tale of the little prince from a tiny asteroid who leaves behind his beloved rose to travel the planets and eventually falls to earth in the Sahara desert has captivated generations since it was first published in 1943 in English.

It was only translated into French three years later – two years after Saint-Exupery’s death at the age of 44. Since then the book, illustrated by the author’s drawings of the little prince and his world, and full of those simple insights that adults seem to forget as they grow up, has been translated into more than 100 languages.

“The Little Prince” first appeared just a year before Saint-Exupery’s American supplied Lightning P38J, modified as a reconnaissance plane fitted with cameras instead of guns, disappeared over the Mediterranean in mysterious circumstances.

He was on a mission over Nazi-occupied southern France preparing for an Allied landing. No explanation for the plane’s loss has ever been pinned down, although there has been speculation that he was shot down by the Nazis.

But the search for Saint-Exupery’s plane has proved an enduring mystery in France, fuelled by the legend of the complex wartime aviator and adventurer, who was also an intellectual, idealist and a passionate humanist.

Born to an aristocratic family in Lyon in 1900 he spent an idyllic childhood in the family chateau. He first flew in a plane at the age of 12 – four years after the Wright brothers – and discovered what was to become a life-long passion.

He began flying at the age of 21, and spent much of his adult life as a reconnaissance pilot, both in peacetime and in war.

His first book “The Aviator” was published in 1926 based on his aviation experiences during the time when he was in charge of the mail post between Toulouse and Dakar.

A pioneer of aviation, he survived several serious crashes such as one in Guatemala in 1938. But he never lost his love of flying, and also flew during the Spanish civil war.

In 1931 he married the Salvadoran beauty Consuelo Suncin, who he met in Argentina and became the love of his life.

She was widely believed to have been the model for the rose in “The Little Prince”. The red rose is tendered by the boy, who is disappointed to find a whole rose bush on earth having believed that the one on his tiny asteroid was unique, until the narrator tells him that his rose is indeed special as it’s the one he loves.

In 1938 when the Germans occupied France, Saint-Exupery moved to the United States. But at the beginning of World War II he moved back to France to fly with the Allied forces, although his injuries precluded him from a combat role.

He flew many dangerous missions, but the last one came when he boarded his plane in Corsica on July 31, 1944 to overfly occupied southern France to prepare for an Allied landing in Provence.

The plane disappeared, and launched a 60-year search for the wreckage in the waters of the Mediterranean – a search that was denounced by some who believed Saint-Euxpery, and his myth, should be allowed to rest in peace.

On Wednesday a French archaeological team based in Marseilles said they had found pieces of the plane in the waters off the southern French city, but the find did not solve the mystery of how the creator of “The Little Prince” met his end.


                                        Subject: French news