(Anatole France) (1908)
A brilliant and literary satire of the rise and fall of civilisation, replacing evolving man with evolving penguin, a flock of whom are baptised by the half-blind Abbe Maël and whose ascent takes the form of first clothes, the nascent concept of property, monogamous marriage, the rise of dogma and the renaissance, even the Dreyfus affair.
Along the way, France savages the historian in a way that suggests the opprobrium he got for his Jeanne d’Arc was taken fairly personally. His penguinographer prefaces in perplexity, “We do not know exactly how things have happened, and the historian’s embarrassment increases with the abundance of documents at his disposal.”
Our favourite is the brief but learned discourse on ‘The Primitives of Penguin Painting.’ At its zenith, France writes of penguin civilisation that “an immense and regular ugliness reigned within it.” France’s biographer fairly comments that Penguin Island “still firmly takes its place, alongside Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm amongst the greatest of social satires.”*
This novel is “glinting with irony and wise mischief…When the literary world is tired of alternating doses of syrup and vinegar, perhaps it will return with pleasure to the light dry wine of Anatole France.”**
*(Anatole France, David Tylden-Wright, 1967, p.248.)
**(Literature and Western Man, J. B. Priestley, 1960, p.340.)