Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

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Title: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Author: Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Granta/Allen and Unwin

Published: 29th March 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 256

Price: $27.99

Synopsis: A story of three polar bears: a memoirist who flees the Soviet Union; a dancer in an East Berlin circus; and Knut, a baby bear born in Berlin Zoo at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Someone tickled me behind my ears, under my arms. I curled up, became a full moon, and rolled on the floor. I may also have emitted a few hoarse shrieks. Then I lifted my rump to the sky and tucked my head beneath my belly: Now I was a sickle moon, still too young to imagine any danger. Innocent, I opened my anus to the cosmos and felt it in my bowels.’

A bear, born and raised in captivity, is devastated by the loss of his keeper; another finds herself performing in the circus; a third sits down one day and pens a memoir which becomes an international sensation, and causes her to flee her home.

Through the stories of these three bears, Tawada reflects on our own humanity, the ways in which we belong to one another and the ways in which we are formed. Delicate and surreal, Memoirs of a Polar Bear takes the reader into foreign bodies and foreign climes, and immerses us in what the New Yorker has called ‘Yoko Tawada’s magnificent strangeness’.

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear tells the story of three generations of a polar bear family – a grandmother, her daughter, Tosca, and Tosca’s son, Knut – and their lives in the German Democratic Republic, Russia, Canada, a circus and Berlin Zoo. In this book, the reader steps outside of the mind of humans, and into the minds of the three polar bears and their lives as polar bears, writers and performers, providing a commentary on how animals and humans are viewed differently through the eyes of three unique, yet connected animals.

Through each story, a world where rules constrict what people and bears can say and do emerges, contrasting in the first two parts the Soviet Union with the rest of the world, and the challenges faced by the bears to exist within the rules but still be who they are. When in the Soviet-era, Tosca and her mother interact with people who want to use their voices and writing to speak out against the faults they see but they want Tosca’s mother to do so in a certain way, their way, and to write in the language they wish her to write in, rather than allowing her to choose the language.

Tosca’s story is that of a former performer, who is recruited to the circus to create a performance. Here, she struggles against the constraints of Pankov and his demands, and what he deems as appropriate to show and say, fearful that anything with any kind of social commentary will be dangerous in the world they live in. In the final section, about Knut, at the Berlin Zoo, is based on the actual bear that lived there from 2006-2011, born in captivity and the first to survive this at the Berlin Zoo in thirty years.

Knut’s story had a sad feeling to it, perhaps because it was based on reality. As a whole, the book is strange and intriguing at the same time. Where the grandmother’s tale is told solely in first person, Tosca’s begins as though a human is speaking about her, until it seems like Tosca and Barbara merge, and Knut’s tale begins in third person –which made me think that somebody else was telling his story until an encounter with a Sun Bear encourages Knut to begin speaking in the first person.

Amusing, strange, heartbreaking and intriguing, Memoirs of a Polar Bear shows how animals see humans and how the world might be if humans and animals could have conversations and walk around together. I enjoyed this journey into the minds of a polar bear – it held my interest, and was cleverly executed. A well written, and interesting novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will hopefully interest anyone who enjoys stories from an unusual perspective.

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