• Revisiting Penguin Island

    P. Sachidanandan

    September 7, 2018

    Image Courtesy: Charles Agvent

    Police officer Param Bir Singh’s claim before the media that he has conclusive evidence including thousands of letters establishing the charges against the arrested activists reminded me of Anatole France’s novel Penguin Island (1909) written in the background of Dreyfus Affair. The prosecutor in the novel, General Panther claims that he has tons and tons of proof against Pyrot who is accused of stealing several thousand trusses of hay meant for cavalry and selling them to a neighboring Power. There was no such hay because the supplier Count Maubec never delivered the hay to the army even though he received payment for them.  

    Colomban, the sociologist investigator and witness for Pyrot perceived that the judges were not anxious to discover the truth. As soon as he opened his mouth, the President ordered him to be silent in the superior interests of the State. For the same reason, which is the supreme reason, the witnesses for the defence were not heard. In full uniform and decorated with all his orders, General Panther, the Chief of the Staff, appeared in the witness-box. In his deposition, he said, “The infamous Colomban states that we have no proofs against Pyrot. He lies; we have them. I have in my archives seven hundred and thirty-two square yards of them which at five hundred pounds each make three hundred and sixty-six thousand pounds.” That superior officer afterwards gave, with elegance and ease, a summary of those proofs. “They are of all colours and all shades,” said he in substance, “they are of every form—pot, crown, sovereign, grape, dove-cot, grand eagle, etc. The smallest is less than the hundredth part of a square inch, the largest measures seventy yards long by ninety yards broad.” The audience shuddered with horror at this revelation.

    Greatauk, who framed the case, came to give evidence in his turn. Simpler, and perhaps greater, he wore a grey tunic and held his hands joined behind his back. “I leave,” he said calmly and in a slightly raised voice, “I leave to M. Colomban the responsibility for an act that has brought our country to the brink of ruin. The Pyrot affair is secret; it ought to remain secret. If it were divulged, the cruelest ills, wars, pillages, depredations, fires, massacres, and epidemics would immediately burst upon Penguinia. I should consider myself guilty of high treason if I uttered another word.”

    Proceeding further, the Prosecutor talked about a cargo with more evidence reaching him. “I have asked for them in every county of Penguinia, in every Staff office and in every Court of Europe. I have ordered them in every town in America and in Australia, and in every factory in Africa, and I am expecting bales of them from Bremen and a ship load from Melbourne.”

    And what if those documents, account books and laundry books, found in the house of the accused do not show anything incriminating him? There is an answer: They are written in an impenetrable cryptogram. The famous forensic expert says that “the words three glasses of beer and twenty franks for Adele” actually mean “I have delivered thirty thousand trusses of hay to a neighboring power”. The words like waistcoat, drawers, pocket handkerchief, and collars, actually mean various kinds of hay stolen by the accused.     

    As a finishing stroke, General Greatauk, who invented the Pyrot affair, admonishes Panther saying, “If I were in your place I would tear up all documents. Believe me the best of proofs is no proof at all. This is the only one nobody discusses.”

    This perhaps remained and remains the truth with many modern states. A discussion will ensue only if something is produced for it. Nothing produced, no discussion. Workers’ ultimate Soviet Union, dream of Maoists’ China, Khomeini’s heaven Iran, Indira’s and now Modi’s ideal India, Nobel peace laureate’s Buddhist Myanmar —forget the old Nazis and Fascists. These are not Islands. They are part of the entire all. So don’t send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee…


    P. Sachidanandan is an award-winning Malayalam writer. He is the author of short stories, plays, essays and novels. His novels include Aalkkoottam (The Crowd), Samharathinte Pusthakam (The Book of Murder) and Apaharikkappetta Daivangal (Stolen Gods). Two of his works, Desert Shadows and Vyasa  and Vighneswara are available in English translation.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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