Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

memoirs of a polar bear.jpg

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

Born A Crime: Stories from A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

born a crime.jpgTitle: Born a Crime: Stories from A South African Childhood

Author: Trevor Noah

Genre: Memoir/Non-Fiction

Publisher: John Murray/Hachette

Published: 29th November 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 336

Price: $35.00

Synopsis: Growing up mixed race in South Africa, this is the fascinating and darkly funny memoir from Trevor Noah.

Trevor Noah is the host of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, where he gleefully provides America with its nightly dose of serrated satire. He is a light-footed but cutting observer of the relentless absurdities of politics, nationalism and race — and in particular the craziness of his own young life, which he’s lived at the intersections of culture and history.

In his first book, Noah tells his coming of age story with his larger-than-life mother during the last gasps of apartheid-era South Africa and the turbulent years that followed. Noah was born illegal — the son of a white, Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother, who had to pretend to be his nanny or his father’s servant in the brief moments when the family came together. His brilliantly eccentric mother loomed over his life — a comically zealous Christian (they went to church six days a week and three times on Sunday), a savvy hustler who kept food on their table during rough times, and an aggressively involved, if often seriously misguided, parent who set Noah on his bumpy path to stardom.

The stories Noah tells are sometimes dark, occasionally bizarre, frequently tender, and always hilarious — whether he’s subsisting on caterpillars during months of extreme poverty or making comically pitiful attempts at teenage romance in a colour-obsessed world; whether he’s being thrown into jail as the hapless fall guy for a crime he didn’t commit or being thrown by his mother from a speeding car driven by murderous gangsters.

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Trevor Noah’s biography, Born A Crime, finds a way to deal with apartheid South Africa and growing up during this time and the turbulent years that followed in a moving, humourous and effective way. Growing up in a world where your very existence is considered a crime because your mother, a Xhosa woman, had relations with a white Swiss man at the height of apartheid can shape you. Using his comedic skills, Noah manages to convey the hatred and segregation, and struggles of the era to an audience who may not be quite familiar with it. We know it happened, we know how bad it is – but how many of us who didn’t live there at the time or who haven’t spoken to people who lived through it know how truly bad it was? Noah’s ability to tell the story through the eyes of a child who did not quite understand at first how his existence was breaking the law, and the innocence of these days illustrated how some people may have tried to deal with it – protect your children, yet they will still become aware of the harsh realities surrounding their lives.

Noah discusses the flaws in apartheid, and how the logic of race classifications was actually illogical: The Chinese were classified as black, but the Japanese were classified as white: Noah’s suggestion is that as South Africa received imports from Japan, they were given the white classification to keep them happy. Yet at the same time, a black person could become classified as coloured, or an Indian person could become classified as white. A coloured person could become classified white and a white person could have their white status downgraded to coloured or black. Even a child born to two white parents, he says, could be classified as coloured and the family separated unless the parents chose to reclassify as coloured. Yet Noah was too white to be black and too black to be white – so where did he fit in?

Trevor Noah has told a side of apartheid that may not have been possible to tell in the early nineties, so soon after it ended. As he is mixed race, Trevor Noah was able to move between the groups at school: speaking various African tribal languages, English and some Afrikaans, his ability to be a chameleon in a world where colour was given a lot of attention was something he soon found he could use to his advantage. In writing this memoir, he has invited fans of his comedy and other readers into a world that had humour, love and some moments of pure terror and fear, and the confusion that some people had, not knowing how to deal with a boy who could speak at least seven languages and who wasn’t quite white, but wasn’t quite black. Like all of us, these experiences growing up in the final years of apartheid and in the years following, where people who were still products of apartheid weren’t always sure of what to do, have shaped Trevor. His words can affect everyone. Though he is a comedian, his words are strong, and could encourage unity and working together, showing the ineffectiveness of dividing people up based on race or skin colour. Further division came in the category of black based on whether you were Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu or a member of another tribe or cultural group, and this could determine how you acted within this group according to your gender. Apartheid not only set race against race, but sometimes set people who had been classed as one race against each other.

Reading this book was eye opening – I knew how bad it was from my parents, and that’s why they left, so I wouldn’t grow up exposed to any of the impacts of apartheid, because it could affect everyone adversely, as Noah pointed out. Though some groups gained more privileges than others, the fact that these could be taken away with what Noah describes as the slash of a pen and the whim of the person wielding it, likely instilled fear in many. Noah’s world as the child of a black woman and a white man, a mixed race child, in a world that didn’t accept him or always know what to do with him, is one that not many of us will really know, yet through his words, we can visit and find out what it was like – mainly for him, but also, the world seen through his eyes as to how anyone and everyone could be affected by apartheid is just as powerful. The limitations of what people could do for work were determined by race.

A great read for anyone who lived through apartheid, or who wishes to know more. Trevor Noah shows that people have the ability to become more than what society tells them they are, that yes you may struggle and fight, you may face adversity but in the end, you can get there.