We humans are a strange lot. We are proud of our history although it tells of so many wars that there probably are only very few places in Europe that can boast with NOT having been a battlefield at one time or another. We highly appreciate virtue and cast it into elaborate forms like social conventions and religion, and yet, we seem to have inherited a rather vicious vein which strikes through ever again and results in incredible atrocities. The history of Penguin Island by Anatole France holds the mirror up to us showing plainly and in a rather cynical tone how our modern society was to became what it is and where it might lead us in the future.
Anatole France was born François Anatole Thibault in his father’s small book-shop in Paris, France, in April 1844. He soon turned to writing for a living and also was an assistant librarian at the Senate between 1876 and 1890 although he really aspired to be a full-time writer. In 1865 he made his literary debut with the short story Eliza published in the journal of a friend, but his first big success came only in 1881 with the novel The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard (Le Crime de Sylvestre Bonnard). It was followed by many very popular, often satirical and historical novels like Balthasar (1889), Thaïs (1890), The Queen Pedauque (La Rôtisserie de la reine Pédauque: 1892), The Red Lily (Le Lys rouge: 1894), Penguin Island (L’île des pingouins: 1908), The Gods Want Blood (Les Dieux ont soif: 1912; also translated as The Gods Will Have Blood or The Gods are Athirst), and The Revolt of the Angels (La Révolte des anges: 1914). Apart from novels the prolific author wrote the notable historical biography The Life of Joan of Arc (Vie de Jeanne d'Arc: 1908; also published as The Complete Life of Joan of Arc), several prose collections like The Well of Saint Clare (Le Puits de Sainte Claire: 1895), A Mummer's Tale (Histoire comique: 1903) and The Seven Wives of Bluebeard and Other Marvellous Tales (Les Sept Femmes de Barbe bleue et autres contes merveilleux: 1909), a few plays, literary and social criticism, memoirs, and in his early years some poetry. In 1921 the author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the following year the entire corpus of his work was put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Prohibited Books Index) of the Roman Catholic Church which actually mad him proud. Anatole France died in Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire, France, in October 1924.
The story of Penguin Island begins in times immemorial with the mistake of much revered, but very old Saint Maël whose weak eyesight and deafness make him believe that the colony of penguins on the northern island where he stranded in a storm was a tribe of heathens to be evangelised. He preaches to them and eventually baptises them producing quite some confusion in paradise because the holy sacrament has never been intended for animals. Uncertain about what to do God convokes the Council of Heaven consisting of the major theologians and saints of all time to discuss the matter and its theological implications. In the end God decides to transform the penguins into human beings with a soul since it’s the simplest way out of the dilemma. The island is moved further to the south where the climate is more suitable for their new condition and the converted Penguins are under the control of Saint Maël. Thus the history of Penguinia on the island of Alca off the Breton coast begins. The first generation is quickly engaged in fights for possession, especially land. Fraud, theft and murder are common practice until the biggest and strongest of the Penguins seizes power and establishes the rule of the wealthy and powerful based on laws that favour them. There is, however, a clever Penguin called Kraken who defies the governing regime leading a secluded life in a remote cave and haunting the other Penguins disguised as a dragon. On one of his raids he abducts beautiful Orberosia and makes her his mistress. When the Penguins finally unite to kill the dragon it is she who suggests a trick to make them believe that Kraken and she liberated the people from the scourge. They succeed and are princely rewarded with lasting wealth and glory which enables their son Draco to found the first royal family of Penguinia. During the Middle Ages the story of the dragon, Kraken and Orberosia turns into a legend and sly Orberosia is elevated to the status of the virtuous patron saint of Penguinia. Time passes and the Penguins live through the same ages as the rest of Europe from the Renaissance over modern times to a all but inviting future.
It is clear from the start that Penguin Island is a satirical, not to say rather cynical outline of human history with a pretty pessimistic outlook on the future. In the preface the author declares himself an historian attempting to write a comprehensive History of Penguinia and in fact the entire novel is written in the style of a history book, but one from the eighteenth or nineteenth century which embellishes known facts quite a lot. Consequently it can be no surprise that the narration is third-person and strictly chronological although it only treats certain, particularly important stages of history. A French reader will certainly recognise many parallels to French history, especially the Dreyfus affair which dragged on from 1894 to 1906 so people must have been well acquainted with it when the novel first appeared in 1908. However, described events and developments haven’t been limited to France, but they are much more universal… and highly political regarding today’s situation. From beginning to end Anatole France also skilfully satirises the people who make up a nation, their social conventions, their habits, their fashions, their beliefs. In addition, the author uses a very elegant style which even after more than a hundred years is a pleasure to read.
To cut a long story short: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Penguin Island by Anatole France who seems to be a bit of a forgotten author outside France today. Since he died in 1924 the original French versions of his extensive œuvre are all in the public domain and can be legally downloaded from several websites. Considering the great number of self-published editions which I found in English I’m led to believe that also a lot of English translations of his works, including Penguin Island, must by now be in the public domain. Take the opportunity and read it! It’s a literary gem which deserves more attention.
Original post on Edith's Miscellany: