Ian Buruma, 1999

The following passage is taken from Ian Buruma, Voltaire's Coconuts (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999). The American edition was issued under the title, Anglomania.

[ch. 2, "Voltaire's Coconuts," pp. 20-22, 45-46)

Why can't the rest of the world be more like England? This is the question raised by Voltaire in the Philosophical Dictionary of 1756. It is a curious question to ask, especially for a Frenchman. [....] So why can't the world be more like England? In fact, Voltaire's query was a bit more specific: why can't the laws that guarantee British liberties be adopted elsewhere? Of course, being a rationalist and a universalist, Voltaire had to assume that they could be. But he anticipated the objections of less enlightened minds. They would say that you might as well ask why coconuts, which bear fruit in India, do not ripen in Rome. His answer? Well, that it took time for such coconuts to ripen in England too. There is no reason, he said, why they shouldn't do well everywhere, even in Bosnia and Serbia. So let's start planting them right now. You have to love Voltaire for this. It is liberal. It shows reason and good sense. It is wonderfully optimistic. And it is too glib. But then comes the Voltairean kicker at the end. 'Oh, how great at present is the distance between an Englishman and a Bosnian!

I was thinking about his coconuts while sitting in Voltaire's old garden in Ferney, now called Ferney-Voltaire, just across the French border from Geneva. It was an open day at the château. I had just been inside Voltaire's old bedroom. The walls were decorated with prints of his heroes: Isaac Newton, Milton and George Washington. There was also a larger picture of Voltaire himself ascending to a kind of secular heaven, being greeted by angels or muses, while his critics writhe in agony below like sinners in hell.

Voltaire was proud of his garden. He thought it was an English garden. [....] He designed it himself. But in fact the style, judging from old prints and from what is still visible today, is too small, too neat, too formal, too fussy -- in a word, too French -- to be a truly English garden of the eighteenth century.


I sat in the old fish pond, waiting for a reading of Voltaire's texts to begin. After a while, two actors, a dark-haired young man in jeans and a leather jacket and an elegant blonde woman, climbed on to a wooden stage and began to read. The actor and actress read most of it in French, but when they found some passages unpronounceable, they giggled, and then went on in Serbo-Croat. They were Bosnians from Sarajevo.


It was fitting that Voltaire should have spent his later years on the border of France and Switzerland: too subversive to be accepted by the authorities in Paris, too much of a Frenchman to live away from France. There, just outside Geneva, in Ferney, he built his own tomb, so that he would be assured of a proper burial. It is a pyramid built into the chapel wall: 'wags will say that I'm neither in nor out'. In fact, he was never 'in', for he would be buried in Paris. On the same chapel is a plaque which reads, 'Deo Erexit VOLTAIRE' (To God, erected by VOLTAIRE). The letter size makes it quite clear which of the two was deemed more important.

Voltaire did not just move to Ferney. He designed most of it himself. It was his very own 'colony', as he called it. To build your own village, filled with grateful artisans and industrious peasants, might smack of Marie-Antoinette's dairy farm, but Voltaire's Ferney, though no less Anglophile in inspiration, was a model of the Enlightenment, a kind of theme park of tolerance. In his colony, he offered refuge to political and religious dissenters, mostly from Geneva. He relieved the peasants from feudal tax burdens. And he spent a great deal of time, in the manner of the eighteenth-century British landowner, on landscaping his garden.

Voltaire still dominates Ferney today. Wherever you go, you come across the Patriarch, as he is known. There is a Voltaire art gallery, a Voltaire real estate agent, a Voltaire restaurant, a Voltaire stationer's, a Voltaire café, a Voltaire antique shop, a Voltaire school, a Voltaire cinema and a Voltaire fountain in the market square. I had a cup of coffee at the Café le Patriarche, next to a fountain gurgling under Voltaire's bust, and around me I heard French English, German, Italian, Dutch and even Persian. An overweight Iranian was talking loudly into his portable phone, while his wife and children were tackling their baguettes. On their table was a postcard of Voltaire's garden. I could almost hear a sardonic cackle come from the Patriarch's stony lips.

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