I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and engrossed yourselves with numerous festivities.
Today, I’m going to review The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell. I really enjoyed this book. The first person narration made it easy for me to feel like I was a part of this book and if I’m perfectly honest, I wanted to be a part of it. It left me wanting a little penguin of my own!
Set in Argentina during the 1970s, the narrator explores the issues of this period: the collapse of the Peronist government and living with high inflation as well as his own adventures: hiking in the high Andes, wandering in the snowy, pine-covered wilderness of Tierra del Fuego. The core of this novel: the Magellanic penguin he rescued and befriended.
‘It was a time when liberties, opportunities and attitudes were so completely different from those of today.’
At the start of the novel, in 1975, Michell was a 23 year old Englishman living in Quilmes, Buenos Aires. He has been offered and thus accepted a post as assistant manager at a prestigious boarding school. He had gone with the intention of exploring and meeting different people. His free time usually came at weekends and this is when he did his exploring.
On one of his free weekends, he decided to visit Uruguay. It was here where he stumbled upon the penguin, well a vast number of penguins, to be precise. At first he did not identify them as penguins due to the state they were in. They were lifeless, black, unmoving shapes, which were littering the beach as far as his eyes could see. Upon investigation, he could see that the penguins were covered in thick, suffocating oil and tar. I was utterly heartbroken to learn that most of those penguins were dead or dying. Except one.
‘Each wave that broke piled more birds on top of those already there. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. One valiant bird was alive: a single surviving soul struggling amid all that death.’
In the corner of his eye, Michell saw a tiny movement from one bird that was still alive. He rushed over to see a tar soaked penguin, lying on its belly, holding his head up and slightly shuffling his wings. In utter defiance, as he approached, the penguin struggled to his feet. The penguin glared at Michell. He took it as a view of rage for what has happened to him and his penguin family. Rather aptly, the penguin blamed man.
Panic, adrenaline and compassion urged Michell to scan the beach to look for anything that would help him with this penguin. He only found a paper bag. He manages to find a paper bag. He gathers the bird, who is still relatively angry and places it in the bag. He has a vague notion as to how to help this bird and heads back to his friends apartment where he was staying. He tried a number things to try and remove the tar: butter, margarine, olive oil, cooking oil, soap, shampoo and detergent. It was a slow but steady process.
Things weren’t as easy as originally thought. The penguin, still angry and still covered in tar, caused some hurt for Michell as a battle between the two continued. However, perseverance pays off. By the time the penguin resembled a penguin again, both were exhausted. Michell has blood pouring from his fingers. I felt physically tired reading it. But, it made me feel so sad that a penguin would be so worried about a human trying to save him. I guess that could be seen as a good thing!
‘…moments, from being terrified and hostile, it became a docile and cooperative partner in this clean-up operation. It was as if the bird had suddenly understood that I was trying to rid it of all that disgusting oil rather than commit murder.’
Michell had zero confidence that the penguin would survive the night but, ready and waiting for him, very much alive was the penguin. He was hungry! Thus begins Michell’s relationship with the penguin. He names him Juan Salvador, or as he translates it, John Saved.
Now the penguin had survived, more difficult questions and decisions were arising. What next? Should he take the penguin to Argentina? What could he do with him?
Human kindness is demonstrated when Michell smuggles the bird into the country. It took great wit and skill to pull it off, but successful he was. The more time man and bird spent with each other, the stronger the bond between them became.
Once at home in St. George’s College, a new world was waiting for them both. Juan relished in it. They met with new visitors, socialised with people, consoling the housekeeper, cheering on the sports team were the tip of the ice berg. He’s adorable. The description of his looks and engagement with humans is just beautiful. I fell in love.
‘That was the first of so many times when I observed how completely at ease he was with humans.’
The students in the school too adored him. They shared responsibilities of feeding and looking after him. The dorm housekeeper turned Juan Salvador into a trusted friend and confidant. She shares all her problems and worries to him. Even the rugby team adopt him as their team mascot. This little creature brought out the best in all he met. With his natural swimming talent, he bought out a shy, lonely boys swimming ability. Another love struck teenager asks Juan for advice: Should he ask his crush out? His stares, his non verbal reactions, provided the answers that people needed.
‘That was one of those extraordinary seminal moments that makes teaching so worthwhile. There had been a rebirth, a new beginning. The ugly duckling had become a swan and the most astonishing part was that the boy had not yet perceived that his life was on the cusp of a radical change.’
Michell certainly fulfilled his urge for exploration and the exotic. He found above and beyond this. Rescuing this bird helped him make a home for himself, helped him to bridge the gap between the old and the new in terms of his employment. He helped Michell make new friends and take risks. He also provided him with added experiences and adventures.
Thus, the death of this little penguin, whilst on his travels, is the most difficult and uncomfortable aspect of the story. He’s offered no time to prepare or to even say goodbye. But, as the novel closes we clearly see how much this little penguin, this slight interruption to his life meant to him.
‘Juan Salvador was a penguin who charmed and delighted everyone who knew him in those dark and dangerous days.’
A charming little book, with a heart warming plot and a historical setting makes this book a great read for just about anybody. The little sketches of Juan throughout are utterly adorable and break up the narrative nicely. Be warned: you will want a penguin after this! You’ll fall in love, hopelessly.
Big love x