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.

Booktopia

Booktopia

The Road to Gundagai by Jackie French (Matilda Saga #3)

road-to-gundagaiTitle: The Road to Gundagai (Matilda Saga #3)

Author: Jackie French

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins

Published: 1st December 2013

Format: Paperback

Pages: 448

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: Blue Laurence has escaped the prison of her aunt’s mansion to join the Magnifico Family Circus, a travelling troupe that brings glamour and laughter to country towns gripped by the Depression. Blue hides her crippled legs and scars behind the sparkle of a mermaid’s costume; but she’s not the only member of the circus hiding a dark secret. the unquenchable Madame Zlosky creates as well as foresees futures. the bearded lady is a young man with laughing eyes. A headless skeleton dangles in the House of Horrors. And somewhere a murderer is waiting … to strike again. this third book in the Waltz for Matilda saga is set in 1932, at the height of the Depression. Miss Matilda is still running Drinkwater Station, but has put aside her own tragedy to help those suffering in tough economic times and Joey, from the Girl from Snowy River, uses his new medical skills to solve a mystery.

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aww2017-badgeThe third book in Jackie French’s ongoing Matilda Saga, about the women and characters of other classes and races behind the history of Australia. In The Road to Gundagai, Bluebell “Blue” Laurence is living with her aunts after the death of the rest of her family at sea, a fire that has left her crippled, and months of feeling ill and not getting any better. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression of the 1930s in Australia, Blue attends a circus, where she meets the people who will whisk her away from a life of closed rooms and illness, beds and dependency on others. Hiding the scars of the fire beneath a sparkling mermaid, costume, Blue becomes part of the circus, a member of the family, yet she is worried about the young Chinese girl, Mah, who used to serve her, and help her. Blue’s disappearance leads to a series of events involving her aunts and her Uncle Herbert, that come to a head when the circus arrives at Gibber’s Creek, and one member takes ill. It is at this point that Miss Matilda, owner of Drinkwater, takes them in and the mysteries and secrets that everyone has been hiding for months and years, are revealed, and a murderer caught as they attempt to strike again.

The third book in the Matilda Saga brings together Miss Matilda, the titular character of the saga and A Waltz for Matilda, and Joey McAlpine from The Girl From Snowy River, Flinty’s brother. As each book has progressed, the characters have become linked in some way, and they all end up in Gibber’s Creek, at Drinkwater with Miss Matilda, whose constant presence links everyone together as a family, all with secrets and pasts to deal with, but they do so together.

 

Like A Waltz for Matilda and The Girl From Snowy River, The Road to Gundagai tells the story of the ignored or silenced. It gives women a voice, it gives a young Chinese girl a voice, and shows that racism in Australia was just as dangerous as classism. It juxtaposes the poor circus against wealthy Blue at the start – and yet, as someone who lived with help her whole life, even before the accident, I felt Blue slipped easily into circus life, and then just as easily into life back at Drinkwater with Mah, Miss Matilda and Tommy Thompson – she was a character of both worlds, and one who has the ability to make her own life.

I am only half way through the Matilda Saga, and I hope to keep encountering these characters in many ways. Matilda only comes into The Road to Gundagai about half way through, but her role is just as important as Mrs. Olsen or Madame Zlosky in the circus. Matilda and her husband are healing too – and Blue, Mah and Sheba’s (the circus elephant) presence will help everyone at Drinkwater for the better.

Jackie French’s endings are uplifting, yet realistic. The characters get to where they need to be in time, and when they need to. Things work out for men and women to achieve their goals, their dreams, and still be themselves and fit into society, even if some societal expectations are ignored or flouted – something Miss Matilda is a fan of, and probably why I was first drawn to this series, because it was about ordinary women doing things beyond what was expected or assumed of them in early Australian history. In giving these girls a voice, Jackie French is giving all Australian women a voice, and saying do what you want. A great message for young girls, and great characters to look up to.

In giving these people a voice – the women, the poor, the downtrodden – whether based on class, gender, race, or any combination of these, Jackie French is using The Matilda Saga to challenge preconceptions and assumptions of history, and to show the often ignored people and stories. Doing so through fiction is powerful, and allows for the reader of any age to question what they know. A series like this can open one’s mind to the possibility of stories and accounts in history beyond those printed in history books, and in writing this saga, Jackie French is keeping the voices of these people – fictional characters inspired by real people, events and the actions of real people – and the hidden history of Australia a voice, and ensures that the complexities of the history of Australia, and the words of women and their voices, are not forgotten.