My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti

My Life as a Penguin by Katarina Mazetti (2008) Not available in English French title: Ma vie de pingouin. Translated from the Swedish by Lena Grumbach.

After finishing A Cool Million by Nathanael West, I was so upset that I needed a fluffy book. Katarina Mazetti is one of my go-to writers when I want nice feel-good novels. I’ve already read The Guy Next Grave or Benny & Shrimp for English readers and its follow-up Family Grave. I’ve even seen the theatre adaptation of Benny & Shrimp. I also indulged in the Linnea Trilogy (Between God and Me, it’s Over; Between the Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, It’s Over and The End is Only the Beginning) which I didn’t like as much as Benny & Shrimp.

So, after the very depressing Cool Million, My Life as a Penguin seemed a good reading choice, and it was.

My Life as a Penguin starts in the Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport where about fifty Swedish passengers are embarking on a flight to Santiago in Chile where they are to embark on a cruise in Antarctica. Wilma has never really left Sweden and she’s struggling to get to the right gate at the airport. Honestly, anyone who’s ever flown out of this Parisian airport feels her pain. Tomas is already there, brooding but willing to help Wilma. Alba is in her seventies, she’s already travelled a lot and she loves observing humans and animals. Wilma, Tomas and Alba will be our main narrator during the cruise.

All the travelers have a goal with this trip. You’d think the first aim would be to see the world and enjoy nature but no. Wilma sees it as a challenge and we discover why later in the book. Tomas decided for a trip to Antarctica to commit suicide. Alba wants to observe the flora but also the fauna of her fellow travelers. A couple of women are there to catch men. A few men are birdwatchers and really intend to see the local birds in their natural habitat.

You’ll find what you’d expect in a book where people who don’t know each other have to live in close quarters. They observe each other, gossip, interact. Friendships blossom, couples get together. Wilma’s voice is warm and I wanted to find out why she embarked on such a cruise, what her story was. Tomas is depressed because his wife left him and moved out to California with her new husband. With her living so far away with their children, Tomas doesn’t get to see them as much as before and he feels like he has lost his children too. Wilma always sees the glass half full and Tomas always sees it half empty. Their opposite vision of life fuels their interactions. Here’s Tomas thinking about Wilma’s attitude:

Et puis elle a une attitude tellement positive devant tout, c’est merveilleux et risible à la fois! Si Wilma se retrouvait en enfer, elle déclarerait tout de suite qu’elle adore les feux de camp et demanderait au diable s’il n’a pas quelques saucisses à griller. And she has such a positive attitude towards everything; it’s wonderful and at the same time ludicrous. If Wilma ended up in hell, she’d immediately declare that she loves camp fires and would ask the devil if he didn’t have sausages for a barbeque.

Alba is a quirky character; she’s never without her beloved notebook where she gathers her observations of human nature and writes a comparison between people and animals.

I also enjoyed reading about their excursions in Antarctica. The weather was fierce and far from the usual sunny cruise. I liked that Katarina Mazetti didn’t choose a setting in the Caribbean or more plausible for European travelers, a cruise on the Mediterranean Sea. It is a way to avoid clichés and it was welcome.

Katarina Mazetti writes in a light mode, always on a fine line between serious and humorous. Her tone suggests that even if life is tough sometimes, difficulties are better handled with a bit of courage and a healthy sense of humor. Even if it’s not an immortal piece of literature, I was curious about this group’s journey and was looking forward to discovering how the trip would end for all of them. Would it be a life-changing experience or just another holiday?

  1. March 18, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    Well as you know, I liked books about people on holiday so I would probably enjoy this one. Too bad it’s not translated.

    Like

    • March 19, 2017 at 10:19 am

      This one is too sweet for your tastes, you’re not missing out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. March 19, 2017 at 10:04 am

    I can totally understand why you would feel in need of something lighter after reading Nathaneal West! This sounds like just the ticket. Is Katarina Mazetti in a similar space to Anna Gavalda? I’ve yet to try anything by Gavalda, but she’s been on my radar for a while…

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    • March 19, 2017 at 10:22 am

      I guess you can compare Mazetti and Garvalda. They don’t write exactly the same kind of books (Mazetti has a real humorous side) But it’s the same kind of literature, not something that will be read in 100 years but something nice to read anyway.

      Like

  3. March 19, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Charles de Gaulle airport? Amen, I agree entirely!
    What I love is that splendid shuttle service that efficiently delivers people to the right terminal when they’ve got themselves lost and gone to the wrong one!

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    • March 19, 2017 at 10:41 am

      It has improved these last year’s though.
      PS I was thinking about you yesterday. I listened to a radio program on France Inter called Sur les épaules de Darwin. It mixes research about the origin of life and literature / philosophy. There’s a series about Australia and its first nations. It explained through scientific research the origin of their people and how Australia treated them. It was fascinating and I was surprised to discover how much I knew already thanks to your blog. So thanks! If you’re curious you can probably podcast it.

      Like

      • March 19, 2017 at 1:20 pm

        Oh, Emma, that’s made my day… it never occurred to me that people might learn about things like that from my little blog!

        Like

  4. March 19, 2017 at 10:54 am

    Oh, yes, I remember wandering around searching for my gate at CDG… Sounds like nice escapism and change of pace, we all need that in our reading from time to time. I am currently reading Terry Pratchett for precisely the same reasons.

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    • March 19, 2017 at 11:27 am

      Books for entertainment are also needed sometimes

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  5. March 21, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    Like Guy it’s probably too sweet for me, but we do definitely need books for entertainment sometimes. It’s no small skill, writing entertainingly. I think sometimes harder than it looks.

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    • March 21, 2017 at 10:32 pm

      You have SF for that. I prefer the Mazetti kind.
      I agree with you good entertaining books are difficult to write and difficult to find.

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