A surprisingly lackluster fantastical satire from Anatole France, the Nobel winner who brought us dozens of French classics. Of the books of his which I’ve read, this might be the weakest in my opinion.
Whereas Thais’s prose sparkled like Flaubert’s, the writing here is safer. There are moments of great philosophical insight, but it is difficult to take the subject matter seriously. France does not commit fully to fantasy or to Realism and straddles the two awkwardly. He is not really talking about penguins, just humans. They don’t act or look like penguins, he is just calling them penguins.
In the small realm of anthropomorphic literature this still serves a purpose, I suppose. It illustrates many of humanity’s flaws, but even France has done better elsewhere in his oeuvre. You might look at the discussion between saints on the question of the baptism of inanimate objects and the consecration of animals – the old question of ‘will my dog go to heaven?’ – as the main thrust of the action in the book, but the developments of the penguinian society requires so much suspension of disbelief that I found myself more annoyed than invested. Dragons? Penguin philosophers, the descent into hell of mythic heroes? Either the author could not decide where he wanted to take his story or he was okay with wandering through every disparate topic that interested him at the time.
Of course, every sentence Anatole ever wrote was well-crafted and intelligent. He’s still a great author, but Thais, The Gods Are Athirst, Honey Bee, and any other one of his novels will offer a more interesting display of his storytelling abilities in my opinion.