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For 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