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By Anatole France
U.S.A., Random House, Modern Library, 1933 295 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2014

This was published in 1908 and he got the Nobel in 1921

Penguin Island is an hilarious, yet serious, satire on the history of France, mainly, with a spectacular opening section on the foundation of Christianity, and later followed with a somewhat bitter, but brilliant satire on the nature of French democracy. In between are sections on the early and Middle Ages, and the Protestant Reformation. I didn’t find these last two sectionsquite as funny or entertaining as the first mentioned sections, but I believe that is as much because of my lack of detailed history of those periods as any lack in Anatole France’s skill as a satirist.

In this regard I am reminded of our nightly, Monday – Friday evening viewing of the John Stuart show. Overall I find his satire hilarious and spot on. However, at times something falls flat for me and often I am not sure if the humor just failed, or if I didn’t know enough about the situation being satirized for me to get the jokes

The novel moves on to a long section on the Dryfuss affair, which I do know quite well, so I found that part of the novel again to be superior. He closed the “history” portion of the novel with 19th century events in France which, again, I didn’t know much about so these were a bit over my head.

However, he concludes the novel with a section of “the future,” and that was quite exciting since his “predictions” of the nature of the future were exceptionally prescient.

In any case, we begin with an early Roman St. Mael who rose quickly within his monastery hierarchy and set everything on good footing. Then, in his 90s he decides to go on a mission. He is tricked by the devil who refits his boat, and St. Mael ends up in the wilds of an island far north of Rome, where it is bitter cold.

He doesn’t see well, and when he approaches the island he sees a huge group of people standing on the shore, welcoming him to the island. They speak a language he doesn’t know, but are extremely friendly, yet he can tell they are not Christian, so his first act is to baptize the entire group on the beach. However, when he finally lands and goes among them he realizes there aren’t people at all, but a flock of penguins. He has just baptized this huge mass of penguins.

He somehow sends a message to Rome, and Rome, not knowing what in the world to do, has every famous theologian who might be in heaven discuss this situation. The problem is: only people can be baptized and enter heaven, but baptism cannot be rescinded, so what is to be done.

The section of the novel, perhaps half dozen pages, where the various theologians try to solve this problem is simply side-splittingly hilarious. I just loved it. Finally someone announces that they will have to plead with God to change these penguins into humans so that they actually have immortal souls. God decides to do this, and when one of the theologians, asks how can you possibly do such a thing, you are a God of His word, and only humans are to have souls, God responds:

“. . . although I am immutable, the longer I endure, the more I incline to mildness. This change of character is evident to anyone who reads my two testaments.”

Once I stopped howling at this marvelous joke, I realized that long ago, when I was a “believer,” I was one of those who saw and was astonished at the total difference in the God of power, even anger and revenge, of the Old Testament, and the God of forgiveness and love of the New Testament, so I LOVED that passage.

The penguins, who until then had lived in the gentle and active peace that penguins seem to live, but all of a sudden these Penguins, now with human souls, and now humans, begin to slowly learn and imitate all the human vices and sins. Finally one even murders another penguin and St. Mael prays to God:

“. . . O Lord, this innocent penguin sacrificed upon his own field and make the murderer feel the weight of thy arm. Is there a more odious crime, is there a graver offence against thy justice, O Lord, than this murder and this robbery?”

But, Bullock, a friend of St. Mael (where did he come from?) replies:

“Take care, father, . . . that what you call murder and robbery may really be war and conquest, those sacred foundations of empires, those sources of all human virtues and all human greatness.”

By this time they call the “nation” Penguinia, and we follow the process of the Penguins slowly becoming human and coming to embrace every sin, meanness and violence to one another which humans have. The stories could well have been those early stories of Genesis when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, and learned and created the sins of the human species. The Penguins create them again, and France writes of them with sidesplitting humor.

Of course, this is the point of the novel. It is a satire on the human species, or at least the French, and their social mores.

The novel leaves the tale of St. Mael and moves to the Middle Ages, France notes that a great deal of the passionate faith of many in the masses is because of the number of people who were being burned at the stake. The others, at least in significant part on France’s account, know that by being conspicuously holy they might avoid the stake!

France not only criticizes the history of religion, war and personal customs, but of literature and the arts as well. In a critique of a 1453 memoir, he even goes to hell to meet Virgil. France focuses on the Romans more than the Greeks, since it was under the Romans that France was “Romanized” and converted. His position is that the Romans adopted ideas not like the Greeks, because they were reasonable, but because they were practical and gave them some advantage.

From the 16th century onward I was much better equipped with knowledge of history to stay with France. He even has Erasmus as figure among the Penguins

Free thought led to the Reformation and war. The Penguins themselves remained Catholic. That was a strong bit of final evidence for me that this is indeed a satire on France. It is the Huguenots whom the French were persecutinf that France has in mind.

Penguins like all others tend to see themselves as exceptional. This is a major mistake.

“The idea that they belong to the best race in the world, and that they are its finest family, inspires them with noble pride, indomitable courage and a hatred of the human race.”
“The life of a people is but a succession of miseries, crimes and follies. This is true of the entire Penguin nation, as of all other nations. Save for this exception its history is admirable from beginning to end.”

An elected government emerges among the Penguins: The new democracy:

“. . . did not itself govern. It obeyed a financial oligarchy which formed opinion by means of the newspaper, and held in its hands the representatives, the ministers and the president. It controlled the finances of the country as if it were possessed of sovereign power.”

Oh me, the satire becomes more bitter and, from my reading of history, spot on. He could be writing in 2013 just as well as he was in 1908!

France writes that the financiers didn’t fear the socialists in government since they regarded them with such low regard:

“(the socialists) their puny but ardent adversaries.”

These socialists would be about the equivalence of left-wing critics of modern governments, and today’s sentiments among the moneyed class is about the same!

The Affair of the Eighty Thousands Thusses of Hay is based on the Dreyfus affair when Emile Zola came to his aid.

General Greatauk hates the Jew, Pyrot, and wants to blame him for stealing 80,000 trusses of hay. (I had no idea what a truss of hay was!) General Parther isn’t so sure, but goes along. The Prince des Bosceados hated Jews anyway and a Royalist, so he, too, supported the charges.

“In every ordered State wealth is a sacred thing: in democracies it is the only sacred thing. Now the Penguin State was democratic, three or four financial companies exercised a more expansive, and above all, more effective and continuous power, than that of the Ministers of the Republic.”

Another of my favorite passages of the novel reads:

“People do not doubt without reasons. The thing was not doubted because it was repeated everywhere and, to the public, to repeat is to prove. It was not doubted because people wished to believe Pyrot guilty and one believes what one wishes to believe. Finally, it was not doubted because the faculty of doubt is rare amongst men; very few minds carry in them its germs and these are not developed without cultivation. Doubt is singular, exquisite, philosophic, immoral, transcendent, monstrous, full of malignity, injurious to persons and property, contrary to good order of governments, and to the prosperity of empires, fatal to humanity, destructive of the gods, held in horror by heaven and earth. The mass of Penguins were ignorant of doubt: it believed in Pyrot’s guilt and this conviction immediately became one of its chief national beliefs and an essential truth in its patriotic creed.”

He follows shortly with:

“There is nothing democracy esteems more highly than noble birth.”

There is a marvelous section on the socialists deciding where to come down on the Pyrot (Dreyfuss) case. It contrasts social justice and revolutionary justice. The first appears to be part of the socialist position, but in reality it may often well conflict with revolutionary justice, which is more pragmatic.

In the final chapter, presented as an addendum, France looks to the future. Before long a group of rich and powerful people penguins come to rule the whole land of the Penguins.

“. . . (the) social order seemed the most firmly established that had yet been seen, at least among mankind, for that of bees and ants is incomparably more stable. . . . The food trusts, by means of most daring chemical syntheses, produced artificial wines, meat, milk, fruit, and vegetables, and the diet thus imposed gave rise to stomach and brain troubles.”

He misses the future in which the primary result would be large stomachs!

In the end, on a hill very much like the hill where Sacra Coeur sits in Paris, two young people meet, Clair and Caroline. He is a chemist and it turns out he is an anarchist. Little by little and (and presumably with some group) they end up destroying first the city and then the nation which reverts to a primitive time, not too much unlike the earliest chapters of the novel. After centuries pass, these primitives are overcome by an invading group of non-penguins, and they build a new society, approaching the old one destroyed by the anarchists and soon, the world is back to where it was when Clair began his anarchistic work.

The novel is a wonderful read. It’s isn’t perfect and some sections work a bit better than others, but overall it

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett