On Books: Anatole France’s Penguin Island

France, Anatole, Penguin Island, New York: Bantam Books, 1958

This is one of the most brilliant books I have ever read. The initial premise concerns a fictional Saint Mael, an avid proselytizer whose travelling boat one day through the work of the devil is carried off to a distant frozen tundra. The good but aged and impossibly near-sighted Saint, finding himself surrounded by quiet, well-behaved men of short stature, proceeds to lecture and then baptize his newest batch of converts, unaware that they are not men, but penguins. This naturally creates an uproar in heaven over what to do with the poor creatures, for although the baptism, being proper in form if not in function, is decided over objections to be valid (“But by this reasoning… one might baptize…not only a bird or a quadruped, but also an inanimate object…that table would be Christian!” p. 17), the penguins lack the capacity to achieve salvation and will thus be condemned to eternal hellfire if left alone, which hardly seems fair. And after considerable argument among the Lord and the Saints, it is decided to change the penguins into men.

That, to me, was the only disappointing part of the book. I had imagined that the penguins would, upon becoming civilized, retain some of their original appearance and character, and be examined in that light. But as humans with a very short history, instead they are as an isolated aboriginal tribe which is plunged unexpectedly into modernity, discovering for the first time clothing, personal property, government, and so on, and then experiencing the main phases of human history, described in satirical and unflattering fashion. France’s portrait of these new citizens is amazingly well-done, very humorous and surprisingly undated for a century-old work. I personally found the first few chapters the most amusing, particularly when the Lord is discussing his own character. In responding to the suggestion that the current generation of penguins be allowed to burn, that the problem may resolve of its own accord with their unbaptized offspring, God says:

“You propose a…solution…that accords with my wisdom. But it does not satisfy my mercy. And, although in my essence 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…” (p. 22)

“But my foreknowledge must not encroach upon their free will. In order not to impair human liberty, I will be ignorant of what I know, I will thicken upon my eyes the veils I have pierced, and in my blind clear-sightedness I will let myself be surprised by what I have foreseen.” (p. 26)

France’s political observations are as entertaining as his religious ones. One of his characters suggests sarcastically that the rich must not be taxed because “The poor live on the wealth of the rich and that is the reason why that wealth is sacred.” (p. 40) Furthermore, throughout the centuries, the wealthy object to taxation because it is deemed ignoble: “Since the rich refused to pay their just share of the taxes, the poor, as in the past, paid for them.” (p. 179) Instead a flat tax or a sales tax is suggested:

“If you ask a little from each inhabitant without regard to his wealth, you will collect enough for the public necessities and you will have no need to enquire into each citizen’s resources, a thing that would be regarded by all as a most vexatious measure…” (p. 40)

“What is certain is that everyone eats and drinks. Tax people according to what they consume.” (p. 41)

It’s really amazing – trickle-down economics and a cumbersome tax code were perceived to be a problem before they even existed. As the nation of Penguinia survives the centuries, it acquires other problems of human civilization:

“Peoples who have neither commerce nor industry are not obliged to make war, but a business people is forced to adopt a policy of conquest. 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.” (p. 104)

Government is equally as ludicrous as business. Describing a minister who is driven to distraction by the unfaithfulness of his wife, he writes:

“If he had been in the employment of a private administration this would have been noticed immediately, but it is much more difficult to discover insanity or frenzy in the conduct of affairs of State.” (p. 208)

Nor does France shy away from the subject of sexuality, discussing at length liaisons occurring with and without ulterior motive, both in practice and in theory. Thus one of his characters declares on the subject of virginity:

“The obligation imposed on a girl that she should bring her virginity to her husband comes from the times when girls were married immediately they were of a marriageable age. It is ridiculous that a girl who marries at twenty-five or thirty should be subject to that obligation. You will, perhaps, say that it is a present with which her husband, if she gets one at last, will be gratified; but every moment we see men wooing married women and showing themselves perfectly satisfied to take them as they find them.” (p. 184)

On prostitution and chastity:
“An excellent moral theologian, and a man who in the decadence of the Church has preserved his principles, was very right to teach, in conformity with the doctrine of the Fathers, that while a woman commits a great sin by giving herself for money, she commits a much greater one by giving herself for nothing.” (p. 204)

And finally, quoting a Professor who argues why urban women are more adulterous than their rural counterparts:

“ ‘A 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. For the position of the feet upon the ground determines the whole carriage of the body, and it results that provincial women, since they wear low heels, are not very attractive, and preserve their virtue.’ These conclusions were not generally accepted.” (p. 215)

Accepted or no, such conclusions are pretty entertaining, and if this is a representative sample of Anatole France’s work, I will certainly be reading more of it.

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