Books & Literature

Book Review: The Prince of the Skies, by Antonio Iturbe

HISTORICAL FICTION: From the bestselling author of The Librarian of Auschwitz comes another epic historical novel translated by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites and based on a true story – the extraordinary life and mysterious death of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince.

An unmitigated delight from cover-to-cover.

In 2000, a diver off the coast of Marseille found the partial remains of a plane: specifically, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning. This turned out to be the remnants of the last plane flown by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, ground-breaking aviator, celebrated author, and one of France’s most beloved sons. He was lost, presumed shot down, whilst flying a reconnaissance mission in 1944.

Saint-Exupéry’s life and untimely death make for an engrossing story.

Journalist and novelist Antonio Iturbe is best known outside of his native Spain for the novel The Librarian of Auschwitz, based on a true story. He turns once again to the biographical framework with his latest novel, The Prince of the Skies. Focussing strongly on Saint-Exupéry’s life in aviation, this is a work imbued with an obvious love and admiration for its subject.

Fundamentally this is the story of three men: Saint-Exupéry, and his two friends and fellow aviators, Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet. Throughout the book, chapters are designated by permutations of these three names, along with that of Didier Daurat, operations manager at Aéropostale (which would later join other small airlines to become Air France). Most of the narrative of The Prince of the Skies weaves around the work these four carried out for Aéropostale, opening mail routes to Dakar, and later to South America. Iturbe’s research informs the work, without detracting from the story at its heart. We also learn of Saint-Exupéry’s complex love-life, his troubled marriage to Consuelo, and of course, his writing. The author of award-winning novels such as Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), Courrier Sud (Southern Mail), and Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand, and Stars), his most famous work, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), will not be published until after his death.

Iturbe writes with a hint of Saint-Exupéry himself. Here is the same charming, slightly naïve style; the same themes. He makes good use of paraphrasing, especially from Le Petit Prince, fictionalising moments which may have birthed the writing. Imagination also informs most of the dialogue, and the inner thoughts of the characters. Melbourne-based translator Lilit Žekulin Thwaites has once again done a fine job of converting Iturbe’s Spanish into English which flows, whilst maintaining a sense of the original rhythm.

The Prince of the Skies is rich ground for anyone who loves Saint-Exupéry, but also for the reader who is interested in early commercial aviation, and for those who simply want an amazing story, well-told. Within these pages are incredible feats of endurance, both in the air and after crashes. There are also love stories, tales of intense friendship, the boredom and pointlessness of war, and the odd literary cocktail party. In his 44 years,  Saint-Exupéry lead enough lives for 10 men.

What becomes particularly clear is that he saw himself as an aviator who wrote, rather than a writer who also happened to be an aviator. One senses that, although he loved writing, its loss would be survivable. Whereas without flying, he would rather be dead. As Iturbe himself says in one of Saint-Exupéry’s inner dialogues:

“People say to him that if he stops flying he’ll have more time to write … They don’t understand anything. His writing is a consequence of his flying!”

Reviewed by Tracey Korsten
Twitter: @TraceyKorsten

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: October 2021
RRP: $32.99

This review is the opinion of the reviewer and not Glam Adelaide.

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