When a bumbling holy man mistakenly baptizes a colony of penguins, God endows the animals with souls and their formerly peaceful community declines into a maelstrom of violence and sin. This witty allegory lampoons French history from ancient to modern times, taking satirical swipes at socialists, royalists, industrialists, militarists, and even the Dreyfus affair, and concluding with a remarkably prescient view of the future. Indeed, more than a hundred years after its initial publication, the story's insights into politics and society remain enduringly relevant. Poet, novelist, and journalist Anatole France (1844-1924) received the Nobel Prize in 1921 in recognition of his literary achievements. His writings reflect an ironic and skeptical point of view, and many of his works were placed on the Roman Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books. This edition of Penguin Island is enhanced with the original black-and-white images by noted illustrator Frank C. Papé.
Then, the Lord and many saints, including Saint Augustine and Saint Catherine, are faced with a problem. Are the penguins actually baptized? After some hilarious arguments, it is decided that form is more important than essence. Ie. that because God will only recognize baptisms, weddings, etc. of a certain form (speaking certain words in a certain sequence, in Latin - a kind of formula), He must recognize all such things that cohere to the form, despite whether or not they are right in essence. Hence, because the baptism, however wrong in essence, was performed in correct form, it is valid. To prevent further problems, the penguins are transformed into people.
The book is a mock-history of the people of Penguin Island. It satirizes many historical events, notably the Dreyfus affair. It's full of twisted logic (like the logic in the argument about whether or not the penguins were actually baptized) and, for each time period that it covers, imitates the writing style and the feel of the stories of those periods. For example, in the first couple of books, the devil makes frequent appearances while taking on the form of some other person.
Altogether, it's a funny enough read in and of itself (even if you're not familiar with the events that it's satirizing), but it's much better if you're in on the grand joke.
Anatole France has essentially written an entire farcical history book, satirizing various stages of human civilization. First he mocks early religion and mythology, prominently featuring the exploits of a saucy and quick-witted young woman, who in later Penguin history will be known as Saint Orberosia, despite her history of infidelity and opportunistic lies. He follows this up with lampoons of the middle age and modern times, both of which center on the relationship between government and religion. The church, composed of saintly followers of the holy Orberosia, is a constant threat to the representative government, alternately instigating baseless scandals (a la the Dreyfus affair), plotting revolutions, and conspiring to start unprovoked wars. Finally France provides us with a very dystopian vision of the future, where Penguinia becomes a soulless commercial metropolis under attack by disillusioned terrorists.
The premise of this book is clearly inspired, but I found it hard to read. It really is a history book, which means that it skips quickly from story to story, never staying long with any particular set of characters. I found the stories involving love and relationships to be sarcastically poignant, while some of the political insights display an astounding amount of relevance to modern events. For example, reflecting on the Penguin government - “The Penguin democracy did not itself govern, it obeyed a financial oligarchy which formed opinion by means of the newspapers, and held in its hand the representatives, the ministers, and the president. It controlled the finances of the republic, and directed the foreign affairs of the country as if it were possessed of sovereign power.” Hmm. When speaking of the political leader they hope to groom into the internal destroyer of the Penguin republic - “It is not necessary for the man we choose to be of brilliant intellect. I would even prefer him to be of no great ability. Stupid people show an inimitable grace in roguery.” I at least can’t help but be reminded of a certain modern political leader.
Although I didn't enjoy reading the book as much as I'd hoped, all of the witty phrases and lucid insights make Penguin Island worth the time it takes to slog through a whole imaginary history.
In general, Anatole France is portraying the follies, aggrandishments, vanities, and futilities of humanity through the ages with surprisingly small amount of caricature and satirising; the effect, however, is pretty strong still.
The work is episodic in nature, so it fits well with the modern short attention span; it can be faced in small spurts.
Penguin Island starts with a fantastic premise. A missionary, half blind, comes across the island of penguins and baptizes them. Up in heaven, confounded with this act, the Lord gives the birds souls and intellect. France then uses his new civilization to satirize almost anything within range of his scathing intellect. The book generally parallels the development of human civilization. The longest chapter, the story of Pyrot and the 80,000 Trusses of Hay is a blistering critique of the French government’s frame-up of Alfred Dreyfus. This chapter alone justifies the price of the book.
For those who have come to this review through my Tour de France history or my cycling commentary, it should be noted that the Dreyfus Affair was the proximate cause of the creation of Tour de France.
Anatole France is a genius. I heartily recommend this book.