The Prince of the Skies
Iturbe’s second novel opens at Le Bourget Aerodrome, Paris, in 1922. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s plane is described as an ungainly, oversized child’s toy—until it takes gracefully to the air, transforming also its pilot. This is not primarily a novel about a writer’s life and death (though it is also that); it’s a novel about aviation, and an exhilarating account it is too. It’s also the story of two of Saint-Exupéry’s colleagues and friends: Jean Mermoz, an often arrogant, devil-may-care risk-taker with an appetite for food that rivals that of Obelix, and the dependable, uxorious Henri Guillaumet.
In these early contraptions of wood, steel and canvas, these ground-breaking pilots are exposed to the elements in ways unimaginable in modern air travel, in their relentless mission to deliver mail across oceans and continents. Even if Guillaumet’s survival against the odds when his plane is downed in the Andes is a historical fact, I read Iturbe’s reconstruction of it with my heart in my mouth.
The book is also a story of love, or obsession, notably in Saint-Exupéry’s doomed courtship of Louise de Vilmorin. Due to a bad hip, Louise is sometimes carried about on a palanquin, like Trollope’s Madeline Stanhope. She is similarly both bewitching and flighty: Saint-Exupéry’s agony of disappointment and his need to keep fighting what he knows is a helpless cause is empathetically portrayed (ultimately it inspires his Southern Mail). Iturbe’s imagery in this elegant translation is memorable: “all his experiences have left an unpleasant taste in his mouth, as if he’d drunk the water from a vase of dead flowers”. Epic might be an overused word, but it is an appropriate description of this novel.