Book review: The Penguin Lessons – A True Story by Tom Mitchell

The Penguin LessonsLast year, I realised that I have a penchant for penguins with foreign names. Midyear, I was enchanted by Misha, the penguin who stars in Andrey Kurkov’s wonderful novel, Death and the Penguin (originally published in Russian in 2002). Towards the end of 2015, I fell in love with Juan Salvado, the protagonist of Tom Michell’s memoir, The Penguin Lessons.

When he was in his twenties, Tom Michell travelled to Argentina to teach at a boarding school during the politically volatile 1970s. In his free time, he explored South America. On one of his trips, he arrived at a Uruguayan beach to discover a massacre: corpses of oil-coated penguins scattered all around on the sand. There was one survivor among them, a Magellan penguin barely moving, covered in oil and tar like all the other birds, but clearly still alive.

“I needed a penguin like a penguin needs a motorbike,” Michell writes, but on the spur of the moment, he resolved to rescue the penguin and took him back to the flat he was staying in. The ensuing story of their initial encounter and the fascinating relationship which developed between the young man and the sea bird is one of most moving books I have read last year.

After a nearly disastrous but hilarious attempt at cleaning the penguin in the pristine bathroom of his hosts’ home, Michell tries to set the bird free, but his new acquaintance is extremely reluctant to be abandoned again. Not knowing what else to do, he names the penguin and devises a plan to smuggle him into Argentina. And so their adventures and a remarkable friendship begin.

Back at the boarding school, Juan Salvado forms the most extraordinary relationships with the students and staff alike, irrevocably changing all their lives. Michell’s commentary on the socio-political situation of Argentina of the time is subtle but highly intriguing. His descriptions of penguin and human natures and how the two can relate to one another are simply beautiful.

Magallan penguins do not live forever and since all of this had happened four decades ago, I assumed that there would be heartbreak at some stage in the book. I was reading the dreaded scene in a coffee shop where another customer became quite concerned about me when she saw my copious tears falling. I was too choked up to articulate my sorrow, but she understood when I pointed at the open book in front of me. I cried again before the last page, but not because of sadness. There are two revelations towards the end of the book which touched me deeply: one concerns the reason why Juan Salvado refused to go back to the sea when Michell first met him, the other is a description of a recent find among Michell’s memorabilia. If there ever was a feel-good book, The Penguin Lessons is it. It goes to show that, occasionally, we all need a penguin in our lives.

The Penguin Lessons: A True Story
by Tom Mitchell
Penguin Books, 2015

First published in the Cape Times, 15 January 2016.

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