Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786

Advertisements

Book Review: No Mortal Thing, by Gerald Seymour

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_no_mortal_thingWhen a young Englishman on secondment to a Berlin bank witnesses a violent assault on a woman, he does what most of us would do – intervene and try to stop it. For Jago Browne, that sets in motion a chain of events that will test the mild-mannered banker and put his life – and the lives of many others – in danger.

The man who committed the assault is Marcantonio, grandson of Ndrangheta crime boss Bernardo Cancello. In Berlin learning how to channel the money his family makes from crime into legitimate businesses, he can’t resist demonstrating his power by earning a little on the side. Little does he know that his run-in with Jago will have devastating consequences for his whole family.

After reporting the assault to the police and realising no action will be taken, Jago takes matters into his own hands. Instead of going back to his safe job at the bank, he follows Marcantonio to Italy with the intention of teaching him a lesson. Helped by Consolata, a woman who hates the criminal gangs as much as he does, Jago ends up hiding in a cave on a hillside above the Cancello home. He has no idea there are two undercover police officers (Fabio and Ciccio) nearby and that his presence could sabotage a long-running surveillance operation to flush out Bernardo. What is Jago there for? Will he succeed where trained professionals have so far failed?

As you would expect from a book about a Mafia-style family, there are a number of violent deaths. Some historic deaths still haunt those involved years later, including a priest who shares a dark secret with Bernardo that he can’t live with any longer.

This book has a huge cast of characters and for that reason the first hundred or so pages involved a lot of flicking back to work out who the different names belonged to and how they fitted in. In addition to the various members of Bernardo’s family and inner circle, there are small-time English gangsters, undercover agents, a police prosecutor, and officers from several different countries. Every day they all live with the danger of discovery – but who will be the first to be exposed? Jago? Fabio and Ciccio? Bernardo? Or someone else?

The pace picked up about halfway through the book and the plot developed a few unexpected twists and turns that kept me eagerly turning the pages. However I have to admit I found the last chapter unsatisfying. Several loose ends and a final twist that I don’t think anyone would have seen coming left me a little disappointed with No Mortal Thing.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

No Mortal Thing
by Gerald Seymour
Published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
ISBN 9781444758641

Book Review: The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret MacMillan

cv_the_war_that_ended_peaceThis book is available at bookstores nationwide.

Whose fault was the horrible First World War? In an age of enlightenment, of European prosperity where its tribes had not been to war for decades, how did such a catastrophe occur that would kill millions, wreck economies and undermine the very value of life?

Of course the answer is that there is a huge complexity of factors, people and circumstance that led to the start of the war. And in 607 pages, esteemed historian, Margaret MacMillan in The War that Ended Peace, explores, connects and explains this complexity in an immensely readable style that takes the reader along at a clip that is almost like a classic “whodunnit”.

The subtitle to the book, How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War provides a significant clue to MacMillan’s primary point. It was not so much that the First World War started by design or intent, but rather that Europe and its leaders ran out of ideas of how to keep the peace. Before she gets to that point however, the author tracks with considerable research skill and narrative style the cultures, economies and personalities that all played a part in the abandonment of peace.

A particular feature of the book is the revelations of the personalities and relationships of the leading figures – kaisers, tsars and kings, emperors, presidents, prime ministers and foreign secretaries. She reveals how democracies and autocracies developed and the pressures each brought to bear on the outcome. In Britain and probably France, elected politicians had sway over their military. In Tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the monarchy of Germany, the leaders either had direct authority over their armies and navies or, particularly in the case of the German army and separately, the navy, the generals and admirals made their own plans for war without bothering too much to think of ways of preventing it, all to the delight of the Kaiser.British Empire

The competition between the great powers for world domination; carving up Africa, wanting to carve up China, controlling the trade routes through the Mediterranean, Atlantic and the Pacific also created jealousies and friction. Germany certainly wanted to break Britain’s domination of world trade (‘The sun never sets on the British Empire’ rankled greatly with the Kaiser). Tsar Nicolas hated the thought of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire controlling Serbia, and would have gone to war on that point alone.

The way alliances formed and the reasons behind their formation is also analysed with skill and clarity by MacMillan. The formation and the factors leading to the formation of Entente Cordiale, The Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance are discussed behind a backdrop of shifting considerations of “who is my friend and who is my enemy and who is my enemy’s  enemy “

Certainly, there was every good reason why Europe should not have gone to war and dragged the rest of the world into it. Europe and its people were enormously prosperous at the time, with extraordinary achievements in science, technology, social systems, education and health. Unfortunately, its very wealth allowed for the creation of large armies by the central powers – that eventually had to do something other than sit around.  It allowed for massive expenditure by Britain and Germany on an arms race, particularly with the building of great fleets, especially the Dreadnought battleships. The German Admiral Tirpitz wanted to build a navy bigger than Britain’s. Britain feared he might so they built an even bigger navy.
dreadnought
There were attempts at retaining the peace and structures which could have helped. The concert of Europe was not a forerunner to the Eurovision Song Contest, but rather something like the later League of Nations and the United Nations General Assembly, used as a mechanism for keeping the peace between squabbling nations. But it was probably less effective than the song contest in promoting peace and harmony among the tribes.

So who did it? In a way, the answer is “everybody,”  MacMillan concludes, “and if we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into war of two things. First, a failure of imagination in not seeing how destructive such a conflict would be and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left  but to go to war. There are always choices.”

Don’t read another serious book about the First World War before you read this one – it helps in understanding the sacrifice.

By Lincoln Gould

The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
by Margaret MacMillan
Profile Books Ltd
ISBN 9781846682728

Book review: The Aftermath, by Rhidian Brook

This book is available in bookstores now.

Have you ever thought about what happens after acv_the_aftermath war in which you were on the losing side? Specifically, when your country was invaded and your side lost? For some, it is unimaginable. For others, it will be all too real. One of the strengths of Rhidian Brook’s third novel, The Aftermath, is the way that in this era of global conflict, with refugees and reconstruction missions so constantly in the news, a story set sixty years ago will resonate with people going through, or at least observing, the same thing going on today.

The Aftermath is set largely in Hamburg, Germany, immediately after the second world war. Brook acknowledges inspiration from his grandfather, who requisitioned a house there in 1946, and he constructs a story that shows the rebuilding of post-war lives in a way that is both fascinating and horrifying. His website says the book is being translated into twenty-three languages. Assuming one of those languages is German its audience there will, perhaps, react with more emotion than any other.

blog_hamburg

Hamburg post-WW2

Those who remember what it was like in Europe in the post-war years are rapidly dwindling in number. My own grandparents, gone now, were in their late teens and early twenties in 1939-1945. My parents were both war babies, and grew up in a time of ration books and austerity. But those days were over by the time they were in their teens, and their remembered youth was more milk bars and mods, Bill Haley and Elvis, motorbikes and day trips to Clacton-on-Sea.

Rhidian Brook’s novel shows us that immediate post-war austerity, from the perspective of both the British who were sent to help Germany rebuild, as well as the Germans who survived. Can you imagine the reaction of the British as their government sent food, supplies and manpower to a country that was, last month, still killing their young men, while children at home went hungry? Can you imagine what it was like to have all semblance of civilisation stripped away – your mayor, your government, your everything – before surrender, and now be faced with the very soldiers who were killing your families arriving and throwing you out of your house?

Once the emotion of the events that frame the novel settle down, the story is somewhat more conventional. The novel hinges on the decision by Lewis Morgan, a British Army Colonel who is allocated a substantial and beautiful house next to the Elbe in Hamburg, to allow the Luberts, whose house it is, to remain living there alongside him and his family. This is highly unusual, and draws concern and criticism from Lewis’s fellow officers, but he insists that to do otherwise would be the opposite of what they are trying to achieve – the rehabilitation of a people and the rebuilding of a country.

It seems almost inevitable that the attention of Rachael, Lewis’s wife, is drawn away from the reserved, English Army officer, always busy with his important work, towards the interesting, cultured and strong-minded Lubert, whose own wife was killed in the war. After all, Lewis is hardly ever home. Lewis and Rachael had their own wartime tragedy which they’ve never come to terms with. And, for his part, Lewis is attracted to the intelligent, interesting women working for the government, helping rebuild a conquered country. Multi-lingual, well read and bright-eyed, they tempt him.

Around these intensely personal and emotional interactions, there is the horrific backdrop of a devastated nation. A city like Hamburg, especially, with its important port, was flattened. There were no services, no government, no jobs. Children roamed the streets scavenging food and cigarettes. Ordinary German men and women were demoralised, destroyed. Brook carefully lets us know that the world is not black and white. Some British army officers are coarse, corrupt and cruel. The Allies were at war with Germany, not all Germans. There are people on both sides who wish the war had never happened, and those on both sides who wish it hadn’t ended. And, in the background, there are the international tensions that led to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.

The Aftermath, for all its darkness, is a story of hope and it is that which perhaps makes it a lesser novel than it could have been. Its strength is that it shows us a time and place few can remember and few have written about, at least in fiction. It reminds us that winning and losing in war is a relative concept. To be on the losing side – if you survived – is to be denied your very existence and identity, and to be the victor brings extraordinary responsibilities towards the same people who were, yesterday, your mortal enemies.

The book’s weakness is to pick, as it reaches its conclusion, a slice of that time and place where humanity, compassion and good fortune triumph. It is not that the books ends on a happy note – everyone here is damaged beyond repair – but I couldn’t help but think that for most of the people who found themselves in these kinds of circumstances, in the late 1940s, in places like Hamburg or Bonn or Frankfurt, things ended less well.

I believe The Aftermath would have been even stronger with a less redemptive ending. Nevertheless, it is brilliantly written, deeply moving and makes a very strong addition to the collection of novels – by the likes of Pat Barker, Ian McEwan, John le Carre and William Boyd – about the wars and related events that shaped 20th century Europe.

Reviewed by C P Howe

The Aftermath
by Rhidian Brook
Published by Penguin
ISBN 9780670921126