Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is a rather engaging book, which on the surface is not entirely innocent of the grave crime of being cute, but the matter – and the way it is treated – not to mention the humour and the penetrating sidelights on everything from consumerism, climate change, animal rights, language and the act of writing, means it is well worth a read.  In fact it is the autobiography of three generations of bears, not one animal, and is the work of Yoko Tawada, a Japanese writer who moved to Germany in the early 1980s.  This novel was written in German, and has been translated by Susan Bernofsky, extremely well, I would judge.

The three generations of polar bears are the grandmother, who started work in a circus but then became an office worker and writer on socialism (there is a real flavour of Gunter Grass and the milder shores of magic realism at times); her daughter, Tosca (whose story is partly told by her trainer, Barbara); and Tosca’s son, Knut, who she abandoned and who was raised by a human male ‘mother’ at Berlin Zoo.  Knut is a real character, and Germans readers will know him well, as he was a media sensation in the 2000s.

At first, the reader is in a state of slight confusion – is this really a polar bear writing, talking to the trainer, attending conferences, have I misunderstood?  But no, it is indeed, and a polar bear struggling with socialism, the use of circuses in supporting the communist state, and the corruption and incompetence of the soviet system.  She writes an autobiography, Thunderous Applause for My Tears, which results in her becoming a celebrity and being able to seek asylum in West Germany – where she is puzzled by many things, notably the bizarre fact that the supermarket doesn’t just sell the essential item, salmon, but thousands of other things, most of them useless.

Writing an autobiography means guessing or making up everything you’ve forgotten.  In reality I could no longer even remember [Ivan]. Or rather: I was starting to remember him all too clearly, which could only mean this Ivan was now nothing more than my creation.

Another worry that now surfaced seemed even more threatening  …  Everything I’ve already written is safeguarded from loss, it’s been saved.  But what about new events awaiting me? Dying means not being here any longer. I was never afraid of dying before, but having begun my autobiography, I now felt frightened: I might die before I finish writing my life.

Throughout the book, the bears (although there are three in the book, they are presented separately, they never meet or interact in any way) can read, write, understand other animals including humans.  The one human who narrates, Barbara, sounds like one of them, and it is easy to get confused.  She is the trainer of Tosca, with whom she perfects the exciting but dangerous sugar kiss, when the bear takes a sugar cube with its tongue from Barbara’s tongue, an act with terrifies and enthrals the audiences in the circus.  But we feel uncomfortable, at many levels, throughout the book about the bears’ position – they are in circuses, they are political refugees, in a zoo, well treated but nevertheless exploited, and they exploit our discomfort by telling us some home truths about human beings and the world we are destroying, including the ice and snow they crave.  Barbara says a lie is the best mother of truth, a text for our times.

Knut

Knut, born and raised in Berlin Zoo, occupies the last third of the book, and this is the most immediately engaging part of the book – although the earlier parts are well worth reading and very important in giving Knut a history and a context, it is when Knut arrives that we recognise the world, and his concerns are our concerns:

At the North Pole, all the ice floes would have melted, the polar bears would have drowned, and the green meadows would have vanished beneath the rising sea.  But because Matthias has succeeded . the little bear was saved, and so it became his duty to save the North Pole from further dangers. He would have to pore over all the philosophical and holy writings, which human beings in the past had indefatigably produced, to find an answer. He would have to swim, crossing the icy sea with its floes to reach the answer. An expectation as huge as the sky lay upon his shoulders, weighing many tons.

Eventually, of course, Knut gets too large for Matthias, his ‘mother’, to play with safely, and becomes a normal zoo animal, lonely, confined, and misunderstood by the public, bored and dreaming of snow and space.  Sometimes, he plays to ease the boredom, to the amusement of the public, just as his mother and grandmother did in the circuses of the USSR and GDR – has anything changed?

I asked myself whether I still had an environment.  No one visited me … I was the only one who made use of the large terrace with its swimming pool.  When I looked up at the sky, I was overcome by a desire to travel far away.  I had never been properly outside, but I was convinced that our earth is enormous – otherwise the sky wouldn’t be so large.

It is hard not to fall in love with these bears, but they are essentially tragic creatures, cut off from proper relationships and activities, never seeing their natural homelands, even though they get fun and value from their lives – and entertain others.  Their lesson is that we too are in a zoo, that we are behind a fence, that we are not living and behaving naturally – and it is time to think much more about what that means.  This book is a blend of a very light-hearted and very serious themes, but is well-written, interesting, often amusing, and always thoughtful.

Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky, (Portobello Books, 2017). 978-1846276316, 248pp, paperback.

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