Sea yields clues to author's last journey

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A SHINING clue to the disappearance of one of France's important inter-war writers was fished out of the sea last week.

A bracelet was discovered off the coast of Marseilles, inscribed with the name of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the pilot, metaphysician and author of the classic children's fairy-tale Le Petit Prince. Also found were pieces of debris from the Lightning P38 plane in which he disappeared while flying a solo reconnaissance mission over the South of France in 1944.

"I found a piece of airplane in my net," said local fisherman Jean-Claude Bianco. "I broke it with a hammer and discovered a silver bracelet inside."

As well as St-Exupery's name, those of Consuelo, his Argentine wife, and his American publishers, Reynal and Hitchcock, were inscribed on the bracelet. Mr Bianco contacted the engineering company Comex, who rang a US research firm, who in turn found St-Exupery's old publishing house and called Aerospatiale, which made the plane.

St-Exupery, born in 1900, was an aviation pioneer who used the image of the pilot as a transcendental modern hero in his novels Southern Mail, Night Flight, Wind, Sand and Stars and Flight to Arras. He wrote about the early days of the Aeropostale - the flying postal service between Europe and South America - and a mystical voyage, with the pilot as both leader of men and standard-bearer of humanism.

Nobody knows what happened to St-Exupery in 1944. Some think he was shot down by German artillery, others believe he passed outwhen flying too high.

Now Comex is launching a full-scale recovery operation with planes and boats scouring the coast where he was thought to have died. For readers of Le Petit Prince - in which a tiny ruler journeys through space and discovers the secrets of human frailty, then dies and is reborn - it will be a somewhat prosaic act of reclamation.