For Your Imagination

Princes and Elves

A recent visit to my bookshelf turned up quite a few copies of The Little Prince – almost one for each of the languages I dabble in. I’m not sure how this happened. I never planned on collecting copies of this particular book. (My small son has at least two copies already, all his own – so maybe it runs in the family.) I live in Zurich, so I hope to soon deserve a copy in German, Der kleine Prinz, although a copy in Thai would also be fitting. Not that I speak Thai. It’s just that, on a recent trip to Thailand, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was all I could think about. Here’s why:

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View from beach in Southern Thailand. Around me, snakes fell from the palm trees overhead and geckos cried out loudly. (Photo credit: Mariana Villas-Boas)

I spent a week contemplating this view of elephants swallowed by boa constrictors, as I sat on a tropical beach on a Southern Thai island. This is, of course, a reference to the opening scene of The Little Prince, which starts with two attempts at making a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. The drawings, made by a six year-old, need to be progressively dumbed down so the adults can understand they are not looking at a drawing of a hat, but of something truly terrifying. I saw both plenty of snakes in Thailand and plenty of elephants and – in those steep limestone cliffs – plenty of elephants swallowed by boa constrictors.

Saint-Exupéry crept into my travels in other unexpected ways as well. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, I stumbled upon a very charming children’s book called A Little Elf. (Even similarly structured titles.) Its author, Chak Cherdsatirkul, happened to be the manager of the hotel I was staying at and was nice enough to sign a copy for me.

The story of A Little Elf is simple and poetic, but what really drew me in were the illustrations by M.L. Chiratorn Chirapravati, who the author told me was a member of the royal Thai family and is a known artist in Thailand. The illustrations are unusual, drawn in a simple palette of black, white and red only, but are full of pause and whimsy. The Little Elf carries a party hat on his bald head with a kind of propeller on the top and his wings are two lollipop circles poking out from the back of his jumpsuit.

The simple charm of the drawings, which bring out the beauty of the text so perfectly, immediately took me back to The Little Prince

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Photo from Chak Cherdsatirkul’s A Little Elf, illustrated by M.L. Chiratorn Chirapravati

What both of these stories show us is the difference between looking at life factually and with imagination, both of which are correct, but only one of which is constructive. Only one innovates, only one brings hope, only ones makes us greater than we are. My reverie gazing at those limestone cliffs reminded me that imagination is only possible with a certain amount of mental space. I’ve recently been told that sitting quietly in a room alone is a thing for experts. I hope to master this undervalued, under-monetized skill and will keep Chak Chirapravati’s A Little Elf by my side as a reminder that such a thing is a worthy pursuit.

Happy New Year, everyone!




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