Author: Anatole France
Original Publication Date: 1908
“As if men could live in society without disputes and without quarrels, and as if civil discords were not the necessary conditions of national life and progress… The progress of civilization manifested itself among them by murderous industry, infamous speculation, and hideous luxury.”
Penguin Island is not about penguins, but it is about history. It is a cynical retelling of the human history commenced in the era before pre-history to the modern ages, done in satire. It is certainly satirical and cynical but to what extent is fictional retelling and actual telling is indeterminate. After all, one can simply consider this a bold and fearless work, claiming that what Anatole France has written here is the natural truth of the world that people naively fail to see or perfunctorily acknowledge.
The novel begins when a monk, Mael, who ingenuously unknown to him to have been led by the devil, comes across Penguins, and irretrievably baptizes them on the strength of the precarious belief perpetuated by a sharp dulling of the senses imposed by old age that the said Penguins were humans. The act carries extensive repercussions as the Council of Heaven convenes presided by the Father, deliberating on Mael’s action. The Council, like most parliamentary bodies, fraught with innumerable opinions hastily decides, for the sake of arriving at a decision, to turn the Penguins into humans. “The sacrament of baptism," answered St. Patrick, "is void when it is given to birds, just as the sacrament of marriage is void when it is given to a eunuch.”(44) Hence, a new line of humans were henceforth born into the world. They came to be known as the Penguins and this is their history.
France chose certain points in human history to emulate. He starts off with the Ancient Times, where the concept of private property was to be brutally established. He brings us next to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, followed by the Modern Times and ends with the Future Times. The story is infused with fictional aspects like the inclusion of the histories of dragons and other notable mythical creatures. The following are the recurring and prevalent points in the eras France chose to write with.
The penguin people were transformed by the power of God. But he cannot fill them with the knowledge and moralities needed in life; these were to be their test. They were but suckling infants in these aspects. France plays this aspect out with the recurring theme of corruption of the penguin (human) soul in its pursuit of knowledge, readily stating at times that man is no different from the common animal. “The separation between man and animal is not complete since there are monsters who proceed from both.”(68)That the penguins were purer, unadulterated, untarnished until they were turned humans was how France sought to impart the point that what we have gained, made us lost the things that were worth keeping. “I notice with sadness, my son, that since they became men the inhabitants of this island act with less wisdom than formerly.” (90) Hence, the annals of Penguin history were peppered with the undulating momentum of the decadence of their pure souls.
The church sought to rectify this dilemma. The didactic needs were exclusively satisfied by the monks of the order of Mael. From this relationship stems an age long conundrum the real world is no stranger to. France incorporated this idea when he extensively wrote on the politics, further leading to the excessive entanglement of the church and the state that screwed us many times over. “The splendour of the truth in those times illumined all souls that had not been corrupted by sophisms. This is the explanation of the unity of belief. A constant practice of the Church doubtless contributed also to maintain this happy communion of the faithful—every Penguin who thought differently from the others was immediately burned at the stake.”(108) In the real world, kings appointed bishops, the priest approved the rule of the ruling king by preaching hell and purgatory to dissidents, the pope calls the people to arms, labeling wars holy in an attempt to conscript the people, farmers and kings alike.
France’s thoughts on the development of the state and the establishment of regimes from the monarchy to the republic are highly intuitive. “Every system of government produces people who are dissatisfied.” (153) We have to remember that this was first published in 1908. His political insights carry incomparable probative value and relevance to our times.<b><i> “The life of a people is but a succession of miseries, crimes, and follies. This is true of the Penguin nation, as of all other nations.”(139)Thus, he moves on, even discussing capitalism, the necessity of war, and its profitability. “The number of wars necessarily increases with our productive activity. As soon as one of our industries fails to find a market for its products a war is necessary to open new outlets.”(150) The forethought France was armed when he wrote this is outstanding, in a time when capitalism has yet to meet the progenitor of its existing unrelenting critiques, the Great Depression in the 1930’s, and where America has yet to be seen as a perpetuator of capitalism and neo-colonialism, we could already read this “Alca (penguin homeland) is becoming Americanised. Everywhere we are destroying all that is free, unexpected, measured, restrained, human, or traditional among the things that are left us.”(268)
It would seem that France subtly wrote that women controlled the world. “Since the coming of these nuns the innocence and peace of the monks are at an end." "I readily believe it," answered the blessed Mael. "For woman is a cleverly constructed snare by which we are taken even before we suspect the trap. Alas! the delightful attraction of these creatures is exerted with even greater force from a distance than when they are close at hand. The less they satisfy desire the more they inspire it.”(13)It is both interesting and curious to me. Whether I would place it as a genuine attempt of his at unraveling this interesting idea, which is no less real than it really is as of today, or an objectification of the female sexuality confounds me (Anatole France was himself a womanizer). “Woman attracts a civilized man in proportion as her feet make an angle with the ground. If this angle is as much as thirty-five degrees, the attraction becomes acute”.(269) I however am inclined to argue for the former. The Penguin Island is riddled with cunning decisive and witty women, the patron saint of Alca, the woman who saved them from an alleged dragon was a woman, a woman toppled a regime, a woman defined the minister of the republic which led to vicissitudes sought by socialists. This I guess would by necessity imply the exaltation men in this book curry to these women, to which they were led to ruin, sadness, manipulation and a relationship of convenience.
France is subtle but as vicious as can be. In all instances, when men of acclaimed holy stature are tempted, they are tempted unbeknownst to them by the devil himself clothe in holy robes. The act that sets this history in motion is of such kind, and many more instances can be read in the book. This to me may perhaps stand as a representation of the evils within the institutional church that haunted(haunts?) human history, or it could also be my fatal misreading of this novel.
Other Books by Anatole France:
Revolt of the Angels(4 Stars)
This book forms part of my remarkably extensive reading list on Nobel Prize for Literature Awardees.