Sometime in what seems to be the 5th century, a storm-tossed, half-blinded, frazzled monk washes ashore on an island in the north Atlantic. Confused and unsteady, he mistakes the humanlike creatures around him, declared to be as sage as a Republican Senate, for men, and baptizes them over the course of the following days into the religion of Christ. But he has committed a grievous mistake, for the newly baptized men are in fact, penguins, leaving God with a difficult choice to make: whether baptism can be admitted for penguins, what is to become of the creatures now that they have souls, and whether the form of the baptism and the new religion of the penguins is to take precedence over the substance. In the end, in a council of saints and God, the decision is taken that the penguins will be transformed into men: thus begins the history of the Penguins, in the book L’Ile des Pingouins, a 1908 satirical history of France by the French writer Anatole France.
Anatole France’s book covers the penguins and their history from the hoary times of the past into the future, lampooning the conservative vision of France and its history along the way. The Baptism of Clovis becomes the baptism of penguins by a half-blind monk, the establishment of private property the murder of a laborious penguin by a brute who claims the land his fallen victim once tilled, the sacred saint of the Penguins a particularly clever trickstress, Charlemagne a stealing warlike oaf, Napoleon with his legions of lions and elephants marching in line, and above all else the Dreyfus Affair, the centerpiece of the book, where Pyrot, a Jewish penguin, is unjustly arrested on trumped-up charges of having sold fodder to a rival nation, leading to a long internecine affair amongst the penguins that threatens to cleave apart the sacred Pingouinia.
Anatole France has a biting wit and humor, filled with comments such as having arrested Pyrot, the only thing left being to find the proof of his guilt, the war ministry bulging with the millions of dossiers of evidence against Pyrot, ranging from newspapers to beauty magazines without a single shred of proof, that the army existed for the sole purpose of shooting the people and the navy for the sole purpose of fulfilling commands for the metallurgists. Or ironic commentary such as every army in the world being the greatest army, and that if an army was reckoned the second best, then assuredly this meant that it was in fact, distinctly inferior and catastrophically bad: by contrast naval fleets could simply be ranked by number of ships so any naval war was easy to figure out the victor. Its detached irony of the petty political scandals and affairs of the Third Republic, such as the infidelity of a minister’s wife leading the country to the brink of war and to a devastating conflict with a rival, sums up the picture. And the refrain of calming public opinion through the arrest of a few socialists is an eternally amusing commentary, with the oppression of the poor by the rich, from the very beginning with the first parliament on taxation, a theme throughout the book.
But I think that it can be openly questioned what by contrast, is the positive achievements of the book. It is an excellent tool to satirize and lampoon France’s myths, but what does it replace them with? There is little speaks of a positive history of the penguins: the defendants of Anatole France’s vision of France, with its tolerance for the Jews, the Republic, freedom of religion: these are all themselves flawed, often deeply flawed individuals. He has a deeply ambivalent look on French society: its government a bunch of squabbling non-entities who puff themselves up to appear more powerful, stronger, more masculine than they really are, the equivalents of Dreyfusards oft themselves simply dragged along for fame rather than with their own convictions, its history a collection of hoaxes, frauds, and vile oppression. All of these can easily be written, but what exactly does Anatole France have in its place? It runs into the problem of many a satirical books in that it is able to satirize what exists, but offers little about what might be provided as an alternative, and in doing so simply twists existing legends and myths, such as the Baptism of Clovis, into humorous parodies, but neither destroys nor replaces them.
Perhaps it is a difference with American writing, more austere, less purposefully cute, but it is interesting the lack of penguin features or clear heritage from the penguins, the serious style credited to it. If it was an American book, then it seems like the penguins would provide for clearly lasting features, an element of comedy or amusement: before I started to read it, I thought that it would be akin to Horton Hears a Who, as a humanistic expression of life shown through the prism of animals, and that L’ile des Pingouins would be broadly similar, mixing together both serious notes of a reflection on human society with the comedic aspect of this being lived in the form of penguins.
This is part of what I think makes the book appear as rather flat, even somewhat sterile, in retrospect. It is a comedic book, but one that has a strange mixture of seriousness and comedy that doesn’t allow itself to truly question human nature and established orthodoxy. Horton Hears a Who by its usage of the tiny Whos, the giant elephant, the monkeys, the lions, even in the form of a simple cartoon book, raises profound questions about war, about the fundamental humanity of creatures, and our relationships amongst ourselves. By contrast, by relegating the penguins purely to the role of a foundation story, and without further exploration of the penguins themselves as penguins, and not just men, it cuts itself off from a more profound and fascinating exploration of human nature and life that it might have achieved, one that a famous writer like Anatole France might have been expected to have done.
This comparison to American writing is also fascinating in the context of the beginning of the awaking of French society to the American way of life and the potential for the Americanization of French society. More broadly identified as an Interwar phenomenon, when France feared (broadly correctly) that its traditional civilization would be undermined and dramatically altered by the arrival of American technology and the American way of life, with its highways, high speed cars, industrialization, and skyscrapers, it’s a fascinating early premonition of this phenomenon, dating from 1912. The usage of cyclical time is also fascinating, with the destruction and then rebirth of Pinguounia.
There are many witty elements of the book, it has a dry and striking sense of humor, and its ironic sarcasm, its wit, its charming lightness, makes for a book that’s enjoyable to read, more lighthearted and less heavy than much of the French literature of the era. But it feels like a book that has a brilliant opening that could have been far greater than it ended up as being, that Anatole France chose the easy way out, to create a book that’s simply a renamed France. It is a book which could have been great, and you feel as you read it the touch of genius, but it is a genius which never quite comes of age.