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“Penguin Island is broad, applicable to the whole history of man...Probably the biggest thing Anatole France has done, because, dealing as it does with the earliest superstitions of man, his faith in gods and in God, with the rise of feudalism, the roots of democracy, war, the birth of art, the action and reaction of parties, it has a sweep so large that it envelops even ages now in the womb of time....At the end Anatole France reaches forth into the future. And what he sees is a development of capitalism by the side of which modern capitalism is as a puling child; he summarizes in a phrase a period of greater New York: ‘the houses were never high enough.’ He sees the masses rising, revolution, the break-up of the social system, the return of pastoralism, man once more nomadic...towns forming...another aristocracy...Parliaments...industry and capitalism fastening upon the world, and again the houses never high enough....That is a vision of horror, or a world unchanging, unchangeable, of man as a dog ever returning to his own vomit.” -Walter Lionel George, ‘Anatole France’, 1915
Outrageous and savagely funny, Penguin Island is written in the style of a sprawling 18th and 19th century history book, concerned with grand metanarratives, mythologizing heroes, hagiography and romantic nationalism. It is about a fictitious island of penguins that exists on the northern coast of Europe. The history begins when a wayward Christian missionary monk accidentally lands on the island and sees the penguins as a sort of Greek pre-Christian pagan society. Partly blind, he mistakes the penguins for people and baptizes them. This mistake causes a problem for The Lord (God) who normally only allows people to be baptized, so he resolves it by converting the penguins to people and giving them a soul. Thus begins the penguin history and from there forward the history mirrors that of France (and largely Western Europe including Britain). From the Migration Period ("Dark Ages") when the Germanic tribes incessantly fought among one another for territory; to the heroic Early Middle Ages with the rise of Charlemagne ("Draco the Great") and conflicts with Viking raiders ("porpoises"); to the Renaissance (Erasmus); and up to the modern era with motor cars, and even a future time in which a thriving high-tech civilization is destroyed by a campaign of terrorist bombings, and everything starts again in an endless cycle.
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Winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature, Anatole France was a French poet, journalist and novelist, whose works were celebrated for their nobility of style and profound human sympathy. His novels included THE CRIME OF SYLVESTRE BONNARD, THE ASPIRATIONS OF JEAN SERVIEN HONEY-BEE, THAÏS, AT THE SIGN OF THE REINE PÉDAUQUE, THE OPINIONS OF JEROME COIGNARD, THE RED LILY, A CHRONICLE OF OUR OWN TIMES I: THE ELM-TREE ON THE MALL, A CHRONICLE OF OUR OWN TIMES II: THE WICKER-WORK WOMAN, A CHRONICLE OF OUR OWN TIMES III: THE AMETHYST RING, A CHRONICLE OF OUR OWN TIMES IV: MONSIEUR BERGERET IN PARIS, A MUMMER’S TALE, THE WHITE STONE, PENGUIN ISLAND, THE GODS ARE ATHIRST, THE REVOLT OF THE ANGELS.
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