The Penguin Lessons is the story of a young Englishman who, on vacation in Uruguay from his teaching job at a boarding school in Argentina, rescues an oil-covered Magellanic penguin. This memoir will charm anyone who loves these tuxedo-feathered birds — and Neil Baker’s illustrations, on the cover and scattered throughout the book, are enchanting.
Author Tom Michell first encounters the penguin on a beach among thousands of dead birds, and he manages to bring it back to his vacation apartment to clean its feathers of oil. “The penguin was filthy and very aggressive. Its beak snapped shut with a metallic clack like a pair of dental pliers as it continually twisted and turned in its attempts to savage me.”
And this is the last time the bird behaves like a wild penguin. As Michell begins to clean the bird’s feathers, “it became a docile and cooperative partner in this cleanup operation.” And when the time comes for Michell to return the penguin to the sea, the bird won’t go, instead following him across the beach, and then back across the road. (Michell learned much later, from a keeper at a sanctuary, that penguins can’t be released on their own, “without a fellow creature of their own kind; they won’t leave.”) And so Michell has no choice but to bring him home.
Woven into Michell’s story of smuggling the penguin, eventually named Juan Salvado (“John Saved”), back into Argentina and attempting to find him an appropriate home are tales of his experiences teaching and living in a Buenos Aires suburb during the mid-1970s. Before the military coup that ousted Isabel Perón’s government, inflation was 100 percent a month, and the local markets doubled their prices every couple of weeks, which meant that the best use of one’s paycheck was to spend it all at once, and then trade for whatever else you might need. “I bought jeans that wouldn’t fit and shirts I’d never wear,” Michell recalls, “…and I had no trouble bartering my goods later on.” Among those who suffered most were school employees, like the housekeeper Maria: “The poor, the descamisados, were rewarded with money that rapidly devalued, leaving them nothing to show for it. The rich were the beneficiaries, because their assets maintained or increased in value, as a result of labor they paid for with worthless money.”
In the midst of this poverty, uncertainty, and political strife, Juan Salvado wins over staff, students, and employees alike as he lives on the outdoor terrace of Michell’s campus housing. Students vie for the privilege of buying him food from the local fishmonger and taking part in his care. Many simply enjoy spending time talking to Juan Salvado. “Juan Salvado was such a good listener, patiently absorbing everything that was said to him, from observations about the weather to secrets of the heart, and he never once interrupted. He looked people straight in the eye and always paid such close attention to what was said that his guests were inclined to talk to him on equal terms—they thought him a wise old bird.”
Michell’s is not the only tale of Magellanic penguins (for some reason referred to as “Magellan penguins” in the book) acting more like pets than wild animals. There is Turbo of the Punta Tombo colony, who has never been fed by researchers but who nevertheless sees himself more as one of them than one of his own colony. And there is Jinjing, who after feeding at sea returns to Brazil rather than his native Argentina, to visit the retired bricklayer who rescued him from an oil spill. The many charms of this species—and the incredible nature of all penguins—are lovingly told in this story.
Michell’s travels include a quest to find a new home for Juan Salvado, and readers are sure to enjoy the travelogue as well as the story of the penguin himself (Michell’s description of the noses of elephant seal bulls on Peninsula Valdés is one of the best I’ve read: “having a pendulous protuberance like a large crumpled boot where they could reasonably expect to have a nose”).
While this book is overall a light, easygoing read, Michell also poses tough but necessary questions about what he sees on his travels, and how he came to discover Juan Salvado in the first place: “How, in a world so full of astonishing beauty and priceless wonders, had humans devised such misery, and not just for our own species?” He experiences an environmental awakening, making the very real and important connection between how humans treat one another and how they treat the planet: “In an equivalent way that millions of Marias paid indirectly for all the mortgaged homes of the middle classes in Buenos Aires thanks to inflation, it is the penguins and the rest of nature’s descamisados who pay the real cost of our way of life, in the only currency they have.”
Midge Raymond is a co-founder of Ashland Creek Press. She is the author of the novel My Last Continent and the award-winning short story collection Forgetting English.