“Delightful and charming” was the cover description of this book, attributed to the Daily Mail, which to my mind is not a ringing endorsement. As adjectives go they seem….bland, like ‘inoffensive’ or ‘nice’. Still, set in the 1970’s, the author does successfully evoke a sense of other-worldliness, before technology shrunk the globe and ‘gap years’ made the pursuit of ‘adventure’ and ‘experience’ more…. ordinary. Moreover, by relating his experience of life in South America, in particular pre-Falklands conflict Argentina, there is a certain curiosity value. However, since Michell is relating time spent as a young master at an English boarding school in Buenos Aires, it does also, at times, smack of rather dated colonialism at work.
Undoubtedly what saves the book are the antics of a Magellan penguin, named Juan Salgado, which/whom the author rescues from an oil slick washed up on a beach at Punta del Este. This, we discover, is on the Uruguayan side of the mighty River Plate (Rio de la Plata) and so one of the funniest anecdotes tells the tale of the necessary border crossing. Of course, we humans seem to have a universal soft-spot for penguins, they are after all inherently funny in their permanent tuxedo get-up. Still, the experience also sealed the perception, among the locals, of Michell as another eccentric Englishman abroad.
Though the relationship the author builds with his feathered friend is quite touching, I couldn’t quite shake off a sense of déjá vu and then I recalled the 1960 novel “Ring of Bright Water”, in which the author (Gavin Maxwell) described how he brought an otter from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. Different species, different continent but the crux of the story is similar, man’s capacity for connecting with the wild and a means of lubricating the wheels of human interactions. A pleasant read, perhaps sometimes such light relief can be just what’s needed.