Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Prince of the Skies by Antonio Iturbe, translated by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites. My thanks to Anne at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour and to Pan Macmillan for my digital review copy.
About the Book
From the bestselling author of The Librarian of Auschwitz comes another captivating historical novel based on a true story – the extraordinary life and mysterious death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
Only the best pilots are given jobs at Latécoère – the company destined to become Aéropostale. The successful candidates include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. A man whose desire to fly will put him at odds with his aristocratic family and the girl who loves him – but who wants to keep him grounded. Together with his friends Jean and Henri, they will change the history of aviation and pioneer new mail routes across the world. But Antoine is also destined to touch the lives of millions of readers with his story The Little Prince.
But as war begins to threaten Europe, is Antoine’s greatest adventure yet to come . . .?
Format: Hardback (544 pages) Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publication date: 14th October 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
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I may be one of the few people who had not read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince before reading this book but I knew it is a much-loved classic. Finding out more about the life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was what initially drew me to The Prince of the Skies but, once I started reading it, I knew I had to read The Little Prince so treated myself to a lovely Macmillan Collections Library edition. And how glad I am that I did because I was able to spot how cleverly Antonio Iturbe has incorporated elements of The Little Prince into The Prince of the Skies. For example, a scene in which Antoine encounters a lamplighter on the streets of Paris, or when Antoine tames a gazelle in a similar way as the little prince tames a fox. Once I started reading more about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s extraordinary life I was also able to appreciate how skilfully Antonio Iturbe has combined the known facts about Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s life with his own imagining of Antoine’s thoughts and emotions.
Antoine comes across as a dreamer besotted by the idea of flying and a life of adventure. Unfortunately for him he’s also besotted by a young Parisian woman, Louise de Vilmorin, who forces him to choose between continuing their relationship or flying, not wanting to become a pilot’s widow. Despite Antoine’s love of flying, because of his devotion to Louise he agrees to her request although he will come to regret it. In fact, he never quite comes to terms with losing Louise and she remains in his heart for the rest of his life. Deprived of the occupation he loves, he distracts himself by writing stories and creating illustrations to accompany them.
Running in parallel with events in Antoine’s life is the story of Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet, who features in one of the standout scenes in the book. The three men eventually meet and form a deep and lasting friendship. Often stationed in different countries, even different continents, their occasional reunions are joyful, lively and frequently involve vast quantities of champagne. Although the three men share a love of flying and possess remarkable skills as aviators, they are quite different in character. Mermoz is a rumbustious character with a seemingly insatiable appetite for food, drink and women – not necessarily in that order. He gets into all kinds of scrapes before ending up as one of the pioneers of the postal air service in South America, finding routes through the Andes that many have thought. Henri is quieter but a loyal and faithful friend.
It was fascinating to learn about the early days of the use of aircraft to transport mail across Europe, and to Africa and beyond. It was a dangerous business relying on a pilot’s navigational ability and aerial skills to fly through wind and rain, at altitude and land at often makeshift airfields. However, despite all the hardships and the long hours, what comes across is the joy that Antoine and his friends find in the freedom of the skies.
There are some magical moments in the book such as when Antoine persuades Sheikh Abdul Okri, the head of a local Berber tribe, to take a flight with him and the Sheikh sees forests and the sea for the first time. ‘The old Saharan hardened by the desert, the intransigent chief, the fierce warrior sheds tears…‘ Antoine is moved by his reponse, reflecting that ‘Humankind – egoistic, hateful, mean, capable of the greatest atrocities – can also be a creature capable of becoming emotional at the sight of the ancient peace of trees’. Other memorable moments that stuck in my mind were when Mermoz flies thousands of miles to bring home the body of a dead pilot, or when Antoine delivers a mailbag which includes a letter to a mother from her long-lost son and observes, ‘These letters contain something more valuable than gold’.
Despite being over 500 pages, I was swept along by the story and the beautiful writing of Antonio Iturbe. It is full of wonderful descriptions and imaginative metaphors. I particularly liked the way the act of writing was described, something that becomes almost as important to Antoine as flying. In fact, as he taps out words on his typewriter, he thinks of writing as another way of flying ‘both having to do with vertigo and vibrations’. At one point, Antoine likens the writer to a farmer sowing virgin land. ‘Effort, determination, and many days dedicated to the task guarantee nothing; sometimes the harvest turns out to be riddled with maggoty, rotten words.’ In fact, the author depicts Antoine tearing up ninety-nine pages out of every hundred he writes as he struggles to transform his thoughts into words. Yet when Antoine does finally achieve success and one of his stories is published, his happiness is tinged with sadness. ‘It’s a finished work; he can no longer sink his fingers into its clay and give it form; it doesn’t belong to his potter’s hands anymore.’ And surely Antoine’s observation that ‘Thinking up stories is less tiring than writing them’ must be something many authors would agree with.
I hadn’t realised how near to the end of his life it was that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote The Little Prince and that it was published in France only posthumously. As The Prince of the Skies neared its conclusion I found myself longing for a different outcome for Antoine, whilst knowing that a tragic ending was inevitable. The precise cause of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s death has been the subject of much speculation over the years and the ending of the book includes elements of some of the theories whilst still leaving space for the reader to make up their own mind. Whatever the truth, I’d like to think that, if you look up to the sky one day and spot three tiny dots, it might just be Antoine, Jean and Henri reunited in the place they felt happiest.
The Prince of the Skies is a moving story of love, friendship and the enduring power of stories to enchant us, connect us with past and future generations, and allow us to escape into the clouds for just a little while.
In three words: Magical, immersive, heartwarming
About the Author
Antonio Iturbe was born in 1967 and grew up in the dock-side neighbourhood of Barceloneta, in Barcelona. His first novel The Librarian of Auschwitz was the number one selling book in translation in the UK last year. It has been translated into 30 languages and has sold over 600K copies internationally.
Having grown up reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s books, Iturbe was inspired to write about the author’s extraordinary life. He conducted extensive research and, despite suffering from vertigo, even flew in a biplane so he would understand how it felt to fly. Iturbe hopes to translate not only the facts but also
the poetry of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s writing in The Prince of the Skies.
Connect with Antonio