Monday, November 26, 2007

The Discovery of France

Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, from the Revolution to the First World War. W.W. Norton, 2007.

This is probably the best non-fiction book I have read in 2007. It is an eye-opening (and imagination stimulating) account of the "discovery" of France by its own people in the 18th and 19th centuries. Discovery? Well, yes. Much of France was unknown, even to the French, until as late as the 20th Century. The famous Gorges du Verdon, the most monumental geological site in all Europe lay undiscovered (except by the locals, who always knew it was there) until a hundred years ago, despite being placed only a few miles from a provincial center.

The discovery of France begins by explaining why discovery was necessary. Communication was difficult and sometimes impossible because of the complex set of languages and local dialects that existed in France and persist today. There was no lingua franca in France until the state determined to make Parisian French the standard -- over all objections. Discovery was further frustrated by systems of roads and transportation that made travel to some places all but impossible.

Lack of human contact combined with impenetrable language barriers predictably created isolated cultures with intensely suspicious local residents, who, in the first chapter, are frightened enough by anything new to hack to death a government surveyor who has entered their small little world to make a map of it.

The story of why France was undiscovered and the role of the state, technology and economics in finding it is fascinating and is told here with real style. I found something to appreciate on almost every page. Having read this book, I think I have a better understanding of French colonial policies during the golden age of French globalization (I wrote about this in Chapter 8 of Globaloney). French colonial policy was to wipe out native language, culture, food, etc. and replace it with standard Parisian practice -- an external policy that clearly reflected internal fears and concerns.

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