Tag Archives: Death and the Penguin

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.

Great, even life-changing – the books of 2015

Another great year of reading is coming to an end, although it did not start that way. I am grateful to the love that has returned my passion for reading to me when reading – when life – became unbearable.
Knowing how few books one can read in a lifetime (I won’t depress you with the estimate), I have become quite selective and wise about what I read. Thus, out of the sixty-three books I have read this year (until today, some not for the first time), almost all were good, thirty-one were great – among them were a few which were life-changing – and only two I did not finish. Of these two, one was brilliant, but I was reading it on 6 February and have not been able to return to it. The other one I had wonderful hopes for, but I was so disappointed and frustrated that after a hundred pages I decided not to waste more of my time on it. In the spirit of the festive season, the perpetrator shall remain unnamed.

The great ones I have finished, I would like to divide among four categories: relevant, delightful, exquisite, and life-changing (whereas some, of course, overlap).

There are old-time favourite authors on my list like Alexandra Fuller and Ivan Vladislavić, but also new discoveries like Pamela Power or Mark Winkler.

Ingrid Jonker: A Biography by Louise Viljoen
Back to Angola: A Journey from War to Peace by Paul Morris
A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
J. M. Coetzee and The Life Of Writing: Face-To-Face With Time by David Attwell
Books That Matter by Marie Philip

Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
(A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion)

The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth
What Poets Need by Finuala Dowling
Ms Conception by Pamela Power
What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler
Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov
The Chameleon House by Melissa de Villiers
Embers by Sándor Márai
Tribe by Rahla Xenopoulos
The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

I had a very efficient guano maker installed in my bath.
(The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell)

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones
Leaving Before the Rains Come by Alexandra Fuller
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
The Dream House by Craig Higginson
The Alphabet of the Birds by SJ Naudé
We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Sugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom
the myth of this is that we’re all in this together by Nick Mulgrew
Wasted by Mark Winkler
Notes from the Dementia Ward by Finuala Dowling

We have to admit our massive love for people. If we don’t ever need to know its depth, we just feel the light on the surface.
(The Long Dry by Cynan Jones)

Flame in the Snow / Vlam in die Sneeu by André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Water: New Short Fiction from Africa
Mountains in the Sea: A Celebration of the Table Mountain National Park by John Yeld and Martine Barker
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso

I would like to single out two books I haven’t written about. Yet. Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher.
A God in Ruins
Atkinson’s novel is one of the most exquisite books I have read in my life. Its beauty and its declaration of love for the power of literature to capture eternity, to heal, to open up spaces in us we never even knew existed are staggering. Personally, I will always associate the novel with two seminal moments in my life. While reading it during one of those serene nights when you are at peace with yourself and the world, I saw something beautiful and drew a sketch of the scene at the back of the book. It is also engraved in my heart. And when I finished A God in Ruins, I was crushed by the inability to share it with André, but then something happened which gave me comfort and hope and the book will always be at the source of these feelings when it comes to reading. I hope to write about it before the year is over.
The Art of the Publisher
Calasso’s book speaks about everything I have ever known, felt, dreamt about or hoped for in publishing. I have known for years that one day I would become a publisher myself. The Art of the Publisher made me realise that the time has come to make that day become reality.