Memoirs of a Polar Bear

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Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear is hardly the first work of fiction to be told from the point of view of an animal: prose writers have been imaging themselves into other creatures’ minds since at least the early nineteenth century, when E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, a deeply strange double biography of a happy cat and a moody composer. Then there’s Kafka – more about him in a moment — and Richard Adams (rabbits, bears, dogs), Paul Auster (dog), Olaf Stapledon (dog), Natsume Soseki (cat), and the Comtesse de Ségur (donkey). But even in this whimsical and virtuosic tradition, which foregrounds the empathy on which the act of writing fiction depends (how could you tell a story without imagining what it’s like to see through other eyes, to speak from another heart?), Tawada’s book is one of the strangest, one of the most other.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is in fact three fictive memoirs, each devoted to one member of a family of polar bear celebrities: an unnamed matriarch, the star of a Moscow zoo; her daughter Tosca, born in Canada, who ends up performing in a circus in East Berlin; and Tosca’s son, Knut, a real-life ursine superstar, who was born in the Berlin zoo in 2006 and lived in captivity until he died, probably of encephalitis, in 2011. The world changes over the course of the three bears’ lives: the Cold War, which is the perfect backdrop for a polar bear chronicle, intensifies, then it ends. Circuses come and go. The cruel discipline of the matriarch’s childhood — her keeper heats the iron floor of her cage with a stove, to get her in the habit of standing on two legs — gives way to the kinder world in which Tosca “kisses” her human trainer, who holds a sugar cube on her tongue; and finally we get Knut, who doesn’t have to learn any tricks at all. He flops around as he sees fit, and it’s enough.

But this is no Buddenbrooks of the bears; it’s not the story of a rise or of a fall. The great changes in Memoirs of a Polar Bear are the ones wrought by writing. The matriarch’s story begins when she tires of attending conferences on “The Significance of Bicycles in the National Economy” and other enlightening subjects (how a polar bear ends up at these conferences is a question that lingers in the reader’s mind, dissolving sweetly, like a sugar cube) and decides to write her autobiography. She quickly discovers that “writing was a more dangerous stunt than dancing atop a rolling ball.” And so it is: a dancing polar bear is still only a polar bear, but a writing polar bear is a subject who may have rights, and witness the violation of those rights. When the matriarch’s autobiography is printed in a West German literary magazine, it becomes “proof of the Socialist abuse of animals,” and she is forced into exile in West Berlin. There she finds a copy of Kafka’s famous 1917 short story “A Report to an Academy,” and some of the things Tawada is up to start to become clear.

Kafka’s story concerns an ape named Red Peter, who is captured by the agents of a zoo and teaches himself to act and even speak like a human, in order to find a way out of his captivity — which turns out to be merely an escape from a literal cage into a figurative one. “A Report to an Academy” is, among other things, a work of social satire: the point being that we’re all apes underneath our evening clothes, and we all sometimes yearn to go wild. But Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a different kind of animal. Here’s how Knut’s grandmother reads Red Peter:

It struck me as the pinnacle of apishness to not only want to become human but to tell the story of one’s own transformation. I imagined an ape aping a human being, and my back immediately began to itch unbearably, as though lice and fleas were dancing the twist in my fur. The ape narrator apparently believed he had written a success story. But if you asked me, I’d lose no time telling you I don’t consider it progress to walk on two legs.

The literality of this reading is very funny, and there’s an exquisite delight in the play between ape and apparently: as if the two words shared a common root — which they don’t, so far as I know; but perhaps they should. Apes ape appearances. (This is surely the moment to acknowledge the excellence of Susan Bernofsky’s translation from Tawada’s original German.)

Knut’s grandmother, on the other hand, doesn’t want a way out. Her preference would surely have been to remain in Moscow, where the winters are deliciously cold. She writes her memoirs for the same reason anyone does: to remember and to be known; and she turns out to be very good at it. The matriarch’s memoirs are full of joyful estrangements, turns of phrase that only a bear could have thought up. “Mold started to grow in my ears because no one talked to me,” she remarks, at one point; a few pages later, on the train from Moscow to Berlin, she writes, “A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence: ‘I am going into exile.’ ”

Would it be churlish, then, to say that there’s something bearish about Memoirs of a Polar Bear? Something playful but not quite friendly, something gruff and strange. The book is neither a fantasy of wildness nor a parable of civilization but something in between, a border creature, domesticated but hardly naturalized. In defiance of the novel’s drive toward climax and resolution, and equally in defiance of memoir’s tendency to tell all and ask for absolution (or grant it), Tawada’s bears tell more or less the same story three times in a row: the passage from the incoherent sensations of infancy to the formed consciousness of the mature animal, from mutism to speech (or at least writing). There’s a wry sequence in the middle of the book, where an aging human trainer becomes jealous of his pretty young wife; but Tawada’s bears are innocent of such plot devices. They toss points of view around the way they might toss a ball: the matriarch’s memoirs become a fantasy of her future life that becomes a prophecy; a human trainer writes as Tosca, and Tosca writes as the trainer; Knut writes about himself in the third person until he wises up to the use of the pronoun I. Subjectivity shifts beneath the reader’s feet like ice; it’s easy to tumble into the numbing water of bafflement. Which is perhaps the point.

In his much-cited 1974 essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel concluded that, even if human beings were able to inhabit bats’ bodies, we wouldn’t know what actual bats actually experienced, only what they hear and smell and touch. So it is, surely, with polar bears. It’s relatively easy to imagine yourself in a bear’s big, four-limbed body, but it is likely impossible to imagine what goes on in the mind of a bear, even one that knows how to stand on its hind legs, and kiss. So what’s a teller of animal stories to do? At one point in the middle of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tosca’s trainer apologizes: she’d meant to write Tosca’s story, but she has ended up telling her own. “That’s all right,” Tosca says. “First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.”

It’s by writing, Tawada suggests, that we can experience empathy for other people, other beings; and this is the case not because writers are gifted with a magical ability to imagine what bears (or bats, or dogs, or rabbits) think, but simply because, in order to write your own story, in order to write any story, probably, you have to know what you think: you have to step outside yourself and see yourself, for a moment, as a being as strange and wondrous as a polar bear. Master that trick, and you might begin to think, as Tawada’s characters do, that you and I are categories to be taken lightly: balls to be tossed around. To see the world in that way would likely bring us no closer to understanding polar bears, but it would surely give us a new perspective on our own human circus.

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