Here is the last part in a series of four posts on the subject of fan fiction versus copyright rules. Now it’s the turn of the famous children’s book, The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is still copyrighted but has nevertheless been a frequent subject for fan fiction, adaptations, sequels and parodies. Argentine poet Alejandro Roemmers has written a fan fiction sequel to it, called The Return of the Young Prince, which will be published in English in hard cover later this year. I suggest you think of it as Roemmers’ gift to the world, say thank you kindly, and leave it at that. If you want to know how it compares to the original, read on.
The Little Prince – De Saint-Exupéry versus A.G. Roemmers
The Little Prince is a children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, originally published in April 1943. Copyright on this work would have expired in 2014, 70 years after the author’s death in 1944. But his widow, and inheritor of the copyright, Consuelo de Saint-Exupéry, renewed the copyright in 1971, which extends it to 2041.
It consists of short moral tales and many large illustrations, 96 pages long. The writing is stylized, rhythmic, simple and direct, and the main character, the “Little Prince”, is romantic, a bit sad and innocent, and mysterious. As a result, the picture book became very popular with adults who somehow seemed to find more meaning in the simple text than the world-weary social critic De Saint-Exupéry might have intended. The book shows De Saint-Exupéry’s great talent for writing from the perspective of a child, with child-like reasoning and concerns.
The occasional complicated statement, such as: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”, became one of the favourite lines in the book for most people, though it is too abstract for children to grasp. De Saint-Exupéry dedicated it to his friend Leon Werth who was “hungry and cold” in France – therefore the deeper meaning and more complicated statements might have been his attempt to comfort his friend. Like The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, people seem to cling to the ideas behind the text, rather than to the text itself.
Roemmers’ Little/Young Prince
Alejandro Guillermo (A.G.) Roemmers wrote The Return of the Young Prince, based on The Little Prince, in 2000 in his mother tongue, Spanish. Oneworld Publications published it in paperback and Kindle versions in English on November 3, 2016. This edition was translated from the Spanish by Ollie Brock, with specially commissioned illustrations by Pietari Posti, and a foreword by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s nephew. The hardcover edition is expected out in October 2017. It has already been translated into 16 languages.
A.G. Roemmers states in the “novelette” that “this book is not connected to or supported by the Saint-Exupéry-d’Agay Foundation.” So much for the extended copyright. However, he tries to legitimize the work by providing a foreword by Bruno d’Agay, a member of the De Saint-Exupéry family, which mentions that Roemmers had had the support of Frédéric d’Agay, De Saint-Exupéry’s great-nephew and at that time President of the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation at the time that he wrote the original Spanish version. Frédéric d’Agay had written the introduction to the first version of the book, stating that Roemmers had “held on to the spirit of his inner child, and when he met his Little Prince in Argentina, he wanted to relate that to us with this story, and draw our attention to its essence, to the poetry of it.” (p.7)
Critique of The Return of the Young Prince
Bruno d’Agay writes in the foreword that at times the book reads “like a catechism” and that is an understatement. Unfortunately, it becomes clear that Roemmers is a great fan of the original book, and a philanthropist, but he is not a good fiction writer. He is, according to the foreword, a poet and businessman who travels to schools and educational institutions promoting his philosophies – love, justice, faith, courage, temperance, etc.
I did not like this book one bit, probably because of my disappointment with it. I was expecting something clever, witty and concise, and similarities with the writing of De Saint-Exupéry. It is not that. It is pedantic and catechismic, and that bores me. The teenage prince is almost incidental, except for the rather leading, open-ended questions he asks the first person narrator, whom Roemmers has identified in the introduction as himself and not the illustrator, Pietari Posti. The descriptions of the asteroid that the young prince left behind when he somehow got to Earth and to a lonely road in Patagonia, Argentina, are poorly conceptualized and clumsily depicted. I found it painful to read, because he combines long sermons with aphorisms, clichés and non-functioning metaphors.
For example: “nothing was going to stop the boy doing exactly that until the cows came home”, “he seemed to have lost his marbles”, or “like a wind that strengthens the roots of a tree so that the trunk is supported better” (pp.26-27), “Sometimes people are like oysters: the only thing we need to do is wait for them to release the pearl that they’ve been harbouring inside.” (p.40) And – this is a whopper – “The more we know our suffering, the more we will enjoy our happiness. And so share what you feel, be it song or scar. Don’t be a stranger!” (p.67) As for the aphorisms, here’s one of very many: “Really, there is only one way of changing the world, and that’s by changing yourself.” (p.35)
I do not think the problems with the language are due to the translation. A.G. Roemmers is a published and esteemed poet in Argentina, and he has been writing poetry most of his life. I was therefore surprised that his language in the book was not more poetical and more original, though in a few instances, his descriptions of the Patagonian landscape approach lyricism.
The writing also shows carelessness: “As an old oriental proverb says: better to light a match than to keep cursing the darkness.” (p.30) A quick check confirmed my suspicions that this line was not “oriental”. The saying has been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, amongst others, but it was first found in print in a sermon by the English Wesleyan minister William Lonsdale Watkinson in 1907 – of course with other supporting verbiage.
Basic structure and plot
(Above; Illustrations in black and white by Ollie Brock for The Return of the Young Prince.)
The book consists almost entirely of questions by the boy/prince who is a passenger or captive audience in the author’s car, to which he responds with extremely long and sentimental sermons. After many hugs, a puppy, pretty landscapes and lessons about love, humanity, solving your own problems, knowing who your friends are, and so on, the author finds out how the prince ended up by the side of the road on Earth. He had been educated by an unlikely teacher, a tuft of grass, and after that, had to go to Earth to get the truth from his friend the pilot (De Saint-Exupéry in the original book) about the sheep the pilot had given him:
“Then the tuft of grass started explaining things to me that I hadn’t understood before. She warned me about the malicious tricks of flowers and the treacherous behaviour of men. I was initiated into the chemical and physical sciences and instructed in the most up-to-date statistical and economic variables. I learned dozens of virtual games on one of her blades that lit up like a multicoloured screen. But without my sheep, the days grew longer and the evenings grew sadder.” (p.50).
Really? So he had internet access on a blade of grass, no less, on an asteroid, and got all of the sciences in the world into his head all at once. Even my suspension of disbelief does not go that far. Would someone who has been so well educated have problems with knowing what a car or a road is? Yet, these are questions the prince asks the narrator in the book. This made the character inconsistent and therefore unconvincing to me.
Sustaining a fictional world
The rule with creating fantastical or fictional worlds is that you have to sustain it to make it believable and for your readers to get into it. De Saint-Exupéry got that right in The Little Prince only because it was so short and left a great deal unsaid. By contrast, this novel is long at 208 pages and leaves not enough unsaid, and the author cannot sustain the frame of reference. There is hardly any plot – they drive from place to place – nameless places mostly – and each chapter is a moral lesson.
It ends when the prince gives a tramp money. (Who still calls people “tramps”?) Feeling virtuous, the author leaves him by the roadside and goes off to party with his friends: “During the celebration as I shared in my friends’ joy, the image of the Young Prince was gradually erased from my mind, like a thorn that no longer pricks.” (p.123). Of course the tramp turns out to be a”good person” and a “university graduate” and the prince “persuaded him to go back home and let his family welcome him with their love and care”. (p.125). If only things were that simple in real life. And then the prince and the tramp conveniently just walk off into the distance and disappear, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Conclusion – an emotional outpouring
I’m afraid that in many respects, this is not a good novel. (Having said that, I am aware that it is probably not a good idea to say that about a book written by a high-profile man who comes from a very powerful Argentine family. So here is a brief note about the problems you might get into with negative reviews.)
It might be called a tribute novel or fan fiction, but it is actually one man’s verbalization of his ideas about life, the universe and everything. It is an emotional outpouring, because the author has very strong ideas and expresses them at length. Perhaps, since he thinks of the prince as a “thorn” who comes into his life like an apparition and fades away into nothing, while he almost talks to himself all the time, the character of the prince is just a catalyst or a mechanism to disclose Roemmers’ personal discoveries and inner monologue. Roemmers does, after all, blur the line between fact and fiction by identifying the narrator as himself in the introduction, and also acknowledges the insertion of his own ideas into the story: “Lastly, dear reader, I hope you will forgive me for including here my own thoughts and reflections that arose as these things happened – I wanted to honour them by writing a faithful record.” (p.11)
In this instance, unfortunately I cannot judge only the book, and not the author. I would rather call it a derivative novel, because, apart from touch-points, Roemmers has very much made this his own story. He had perhaps not intended for the book to be judged against literary standards in terms of setting, plot, characterization, themes, etc., which means it was a target right from the start for negative criticism. And maybe he intended only young adults to read it. If so, he did not meet the criteria for writing for that age group – as is pretty obvious. But, disregarding all these concerns, if you simply think of the book as a “labour of love”, you will probably enjoy it. Call it Roemmers’ gift to the world, say thank you kindly, and leave it at that.
About the author
More about the famous family of A.G. Roemmers, here…I got the backstory when I tried to ascertain what sort of surname Roemmers was – I suspected a German origin, and that is the case.
Here is his biography from Roemmers’ English website: “Alejandro Guillermo Roemmers was born in Buenos Aires in 1958 into a family that offered him the chance of an exceptional education. Having started to write as a child, his poetry has been published widely and received numerous awards. […] At present, Alejandro Roemmers is President of the Argentinean Poetry Foundation and Honorary President of the American Poetry Association; a Numerary Member of the Mexican Royal Institute of Culture and Honorary Member of the Institute of Hispanic Culture and Literature.
He has been named Argentinean Ambassador of Letters to the Argentinean Writers’ Association (SADE). He is a successful international entrepreneur and patron of the Arts who ‘tries to help and improve the world in which we live through education and culture, because ‘there is nothing that changes a person’s life more than books’. Moreover, he admits to being a staunch defender of values such as love and brotherhood. A commitment that is eloquently testified to in “The Return of the Young Prince”, a book ‘written from the heart’, which has been translated with great success into sixteen languages, and which topped the best-seller list in its genre in Argentina, Brazil and Italy.”
His published writing, all poetry other than The Return of the Young Prince, includes:
- Soñadores, Soñad (Dream, dreamers), 1982, publisher: Botella al mar
- Ancla Fugaz (Fleeting Anchor), 1995, publisher: Ayala Palacio Ediciones Proa
- España en mí (Spain in me), 1996, publisher: Ediciones Proa
- El regreso del joven Príncipe (The Return of the Young Prince), 2000, publisher: Editorial Sudamericana (now a label of the Penguin Random House group)
- Más Allá (Beyond), 2001, publisher: Ediciones Proa
- Poemas Elegidos (Selected Poems), 2006, published by Vinciguerra
- Como la Arena (Like Sand), 2006, publisher: Alloni-Proa
- La Túnica Sensuale (The Sensual Tunic), 2008, (Italian, Broché/Paperback) by Alejandro Roemmers (author), E. Coco (translationn), publisher: Sentieri Meridiani