Book review: Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear bears witness to humanity
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a hauntingly strange concoction of dreamlike fantasy and factual-based reality. A Kafkaesque exploration of the permeability between the human and the non-human, the self and the other, Yoko Tawada’s enchanting novel also addresses the timely issues of migration, citizenship and climate change.
The novel tells the stories of three generations of polar bears (grandmother through grandson). As such, the singular “memoir” of the title appears to point to the acclaimed work written by the first protagonist – an unnamed female, one-time circus performer-turned-office manager-turned-writer living in Soviet Russia – the writing of which sets this intergenerational narrative in motion.
The most “dangerous” of all acrobatic feats, her work sees her threatened with a one-way ticket to Siberia, so she flees to East Germany, then on to Canada, before later emigrating back to the DDR along with her husband. This is where her daughter, Tosca – a dancer who grows up to perform in an East Berlin circus, famous for her and her handler Barbara’s impressive “Kiss of Death” routine – is born. Then, later still, Tosca’s own child, Knut, is born at the beginning of the 21st century. Rejected by Tosca, he’s raised by a male human “mother” instead.
If any of this rings a bell, it’s because although Tawada’s story begins in the realm of fantasy – a world in which no one bats an eye at a memoir-writing, talking polar bear – throughout the passage of time the narrative becomes increasingly grounded in reality. Barbara is based on the celebrated animal trainer Ursula Böttcher of the State Circus of the German Democratic Republic; and there was a real-life Knut, too, born in captivity in Berlin in 2006, raised by zookeepers, and one of the zoo’s most famous and beloved inhabitants.
As such, the slippage between animals and humans that characterises the first section – the polar bear “sells” her work to an editor of a literary journal, who, although human, is more akin to an animal; “moist and slippery” like a seal, he goes by the name Sea Lion – becomes more rigid as the story progresses; the borders between them gradually more and more clearly defined.
So too, language, and communication, becomes increasingly abstract – something that’s of particular significance when it comes to Tawada’s work, as she writes in both Japanese and German. Memoirs of a Polar Bear was initially written in Japanese. She then translated it into German, and it is this “Western” version from which translator Susan Bernofsky worked.
For the unnamed memoirist, words are anthropomorphised into living, breathing entities: “A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence: ‘I am going into exile.’” While for her daughter Tosca, language is no less meaningful, but inordinately less tangible. She and Barbara, her circus handler, cannot speak directly with one another, but they do communicate via their dreams: “A human soul turned out to be less romantic than I’d imagined. It was made up primarily of languages – not just ordinary, comprehensible languages, but also many broken shards of language, the shadows of languages, and images that couldn’t turn into words.”
Meanwhile Knut is the most baffled by the philological, unable to speak to his human “mother” and incapable of even comprehending of conversing with Tosca – “For a moment I tried to imagine a conversation with my biological mother, but my attempt was instantly derailed: instead of Tosca, all I could think of was a child’s drawing of two silent snowmen standing side by side.” He is also confused by the rules of grammar that denote self and other, referring to himself in the third person for much of his narrative. Voice and agency are key here. The memoirist has the former but often lacks the latter – Sea Lion publishes her work without her permission, then in Germany, authorities seek to control the translation of her words – while strangely enough what we initially assume is Barbara’s autobiography is actually Tosca writing from her friend’s point of view.
Something about the way Tawada writes – and Bernofsky’s beautiful translation stays true to this – allows the reader to take the most surreal and fantastical elements of the work completely seriously. Not that this is an earnest text, on the contrary it’s deliciously whimsical and playful; but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the messages it carries. If anything, it’s proof that a different and unexpected perspective can be the most enlightening of all: it’s through the eyes of polar bears that we see humanity most clearly.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.