The dust jacket for this wee novel describes it as a cross between The Little Prince and The Alchemist. I cannot disagree – it is light and open-hearted like The Little Prince, and it ponders life’s big questions like The Alchemist – but it pales in comparison to both.
Like author Francois Lelord, Hector is a psychiatrist living in France. Dissatisfied with his private practice, where a growing number of patients are unhappy despite being mentally healthy, Hector takes off. He journeys around the world to study happiness. His search for answers makes him similar to the pilgrim in The Alchemist, but his quest is far more banal. He also travels from place to place like The Little Prince, collecting life lessons. But his travels are far less fanciful, and because he’s a psychiatrist, his insights are more scientific.
(Photo: Amy Attas)
The writing is at first very charming. Lelord sticks to small words and simple phrases, even when describing complex ideas, which makes the story read like a harmless children’s tale. It is precise, in the same way that a children’s story might begin with a rich prince and a poor orphan girl. But things become problematic when Lelord oversimplifies very adult situations. He keeps countries and cities anonymous, as if to protect them from slander, but then takes the time to describe each geopolitical situation as it relates to his quest for happiness. So it’s fairly easy to recognize each location, and to recognize that his characterization of each place is biased:
“Her name was Djamila, which happens to mean beautiful, and she came from an equally beautiful country, where people a little older than Hector would have gone on holiday when they were young, because you could smoke weed in the midst of magnificent mountains. The girls would have brought back beautiful fabrics, which they turned into dresses and curtains. (It was a time when dresses and curtains looked very similar.)
“Since then, that country had always been at war, at first because it had been invaded by a large neighbouring country that had wanted to create a heaven on earth, except that the inhabitants of the beautiful country didn’t agree with their version of heaven. So the inhabitants had fought for years against the soldiers from the large neighbouring country and the war had become like a festering sore that made the big country very sick. After that, things went from bad to worse for everybody, countless mothers had shed countless tears, the big country had grown weak as a small country, and Djamila’s country had gone on being at war because some people there also wanted to create heaven on earth…The beautiful country had grown poorer than when Hector was a child. It was getting better now; a large army made up of people from countries all over the world had gone to sort things out.”
It feels almost like a game, figuring out which countries he’s talking about. But it’s also deeply problematic to gloss over colonialism, slavery, and the vanity of western leaders. In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry avoids this problem by creating fictional worlds. Lelord doesn’t fictionalize enough, and thus sounds like a man of privilege as he hand-picks aspects of anthropology for his psychological thought experiment.
Hector also comes across as a drone for the patriarchy. He rationalizes having sex with a pretty local in almost every country he visits, and rationalizes keeping this a secret from his on-again off-again girlfriend back in France. He is meticulous in describing the attractiveness of every female character, but does not pay much attention to the physical appearance of the men. He meets one woman whose face is severely swollen from illness, but when he sees a picture of her former beauty, he knows exactly what to do: “he smiled at her, because men’s smiles must be something she greatly missed.”
Still, it is nice to spend time pondering human happiness, and not too hard to sit for this international bestseller’s 150 small pages. At the moment, I’m stuck on Lesson no. 1: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness,” since I often compare myself to other people, to who I used to be, and to who I’d like to become, and most often those comparisons spoil my happiness. But it’s OK, because I’m currently living on an island in the north Pacific, so I have Lesson no. 19 in my pocket: “The sun and the sea make everybody happy.”