Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird

Posted by nliakos on April 13, 2016

by Tom Michell (Ballantine 2015; ISBN 978-1-101-96741-6)

Tom Michell is an Englishman, about the same age as I am. During the 1970s, both of us traveled to a strange continent to live and work–the adventure of a lifetime. Michell has written about his adventure in this endearing account of a young man and his penguin. (Perhaps I should say of a penguin and his young man.) Michell was on holiday in Uruguay during a break from his teaching job outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina, when he came upon an oil-soaked Magellan penguin on a beach strewn with the bodies of similarly oil-soaked Magellan penguins, all dead except for this one. Without considering the consequences, he captured the penguin (which turned out to be fiercely aggressive) and took it back to the apartment he was staying in to try to clean it up with dish detergent, shampoo, olive oil, and butter.

One of the most wondrous passages in the book concerns the penguin’s sudden transformation during this cleaning procedure. After the bird drew serious blood from Michell’s finger, he bound its feet together, its wings close to its body, and its beak shut, while he applied and then rinsed off the dish detergent. Michell writes, “Suddenly the exhausted penguin lay still. . . . Within moments of being a terrified, hostile, and resentful animal that was . . . determined to exact revenge on me, . . . it became a docile and cooperative partner in this cleanup operation. The transformation occurred as I washed off the first of the detergent. It was as if the bird had suddenly understood that I was trying to rid it of that disgusting oil rather than commit murder. . . .

Needing to travel back to Argentina the following day, Michell attempts to return the penguin to the sea, but it refuses to leave him, and he ends up trying to smuggle it into Argentina (getting caught and assuring the customs agent that it was an Argentine penguin, not a Uruguayan penguin, so he was just repatriating it). He takes it to the boarding school where he lives and teaches, where the penguin, which he calls Juan Salvado (aka Juan Salvador), is adopted by staff and students alike as a kind of mascot. They all take to visiting the penguin and baring their souls to it as it gazes into their eyes and seems to listen to and understand them perfectly.

Michell’s descriptions of Juan Salvado learning that a dead fish is still food, how to ascend and descend a staircase, and how to swim in a pool, are enchanting.

The reader is also treated to some wonderful descriptions of the places he traveled (without the penguin) and the people he encountered, some Argentine history and culture, and some interesting penguin lore. The book is ably illustrated by Neil Baker; unfortunately, the photographs Michell took of the penguin have been lost.

In the genre of amazing relationships between humans and animals, this book is a standout. It’s interesting, funny, and heart-breaking in turns.

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