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. Paul La Farge is the author of two novels: The Artist of the Missing and Haussmann, or the Distinction.
Reviewer: Paul La Farge
The Barnes & Noble Review
…a study of blurred lines: the line between human and animal, the line between one person's (or creature's) story and another's, the line between love and exploitation…
Memoirs of a Polar Bear hums with beautiful strangeness. Look at the animals we are. Look at us searching for love, for meaning, for our own true forms.
The New York Times Book Review - Ramona Ausubel
Written by acclaimed Japanese-German author Tawada, this immersive, dreamy novel follows three generations of a polar bear family—grandmother, daughter, son—as each tries to balance the public pressures of circus performing with the solitary satisfactions of a literary life. In the first section, the family’s matriarch pens an acclaimed autobiography, Thunderous Applause for My Tears, which her agent, a wily sea lion, publishes without her permission. After emigrating to Canada in order to escape the oppressive heat of Berlin, she gives birth to Tosca, whose section focuses on the life of Barbara, Tosca’s innovative animal trainer. In the final section, Tosca bears Knut, an emblem for the polar bear’s plight and the ward of Matthias, his beloved caretaker. When Matthias dies suddenly, Knut must reckon with the renown of the estranged women who came before him, as well as his species’s shrinking place in a warming world. Though the sapien-centric middle portion pales in comparison, the first and third sections present a poignant blend of history and fairy tale, an inventive account of beasts often too humane for their own good. (Nov.)
"Tawada asks us to see writing from an unusual perspective: it is like balancing on a ball, or hunting. Thus we’re forced to see writing not just as a cerebral art but a physical one, as well."
Three Percent - Chad W. Post
"As acrobatic with her writing as her polar bear subjects, Yoko Tawada walks a line between fantastical yet believable."
"Ms Tawada brings her fine-nosed, soft-furred beasts to life... [Tawada] has a deadpan wit and disorienting mischief all her own, nimbly translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky."
"Tawada’s accounts of alienation achieve a remarkable potency."
The New York Times Book Review
"Tawada masterfully transports the reader to this place approaching transcendence, where language — so distinctly human, we suppose — brings us into imaginative intimacy with another kind of being."
Full Stop - Nathan Goldman
"[T]he animal characters of
Memoirs pursue a hybrid existence, refusing to romanticize the state of nature."
Harper's Magazine - Christine Smallwood
Memoirs gives us an often funny and intimate perspective on what it must be like to be a sentient bear in an overwhelmingly human world."
New Republic - Clio Chang
Memoirs of a Polar Bear works on many levels, fizzing with ideas on exile, migration and love... questioning what it means to be human."
"The empathy for these magnificent bears, from the cruelty foisted on them, of which they are unaware, to the love poured on them by those who care for them just drips off the page."
"A distinguished contribution to the unique paranoid style of the new European novel."
The Brooklyn Rail - Anis Shivani
"Strange, exquisite book."
"Tawada’s stories agitate the mind like songs half remembered or treasure boxes whose keys are locked within."
"Something about the way Tawada writes – and Bernofsky’s beautiful translation stays true to this – allows the reader to take the most surreal and fantastical elements of the work completely seriously. Not that this is an earnest text, on the contrary it’s deliciously whimsical and playful; but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the messages it carries. If anything, it’s proof that a different and unexpected perspective can be the most enlightening of all: it’s through the eyes of polar bears that we see humanity most clearly."
The National - Lucy Scholes
"In ‘Memoirs,’ when a polar bear walks into a bookstore or a grocery store, there are no troubles stemming from a lack of opposable thumbs. As with Kafka’s animal characters, we are freed to dislike them in the special way we usually reserve only for ourselves."
New York Times Magazine - Rivka Galchen
"Tawada bears out the truth that tongues can also bring inventive thoughts to vibrant life."
The Boston Globe - Steven G. Kellman
"Her finest stories dramatize the fate of the individual in a mobilized world."
The New York Sun - Benjamin Lytal
"This novel is ''doubly translated'' in the sense that Yoko Tawada first wrote it in Japanese and then translated it herself into German, from whence it was re-crafted into English. It even boasts an additional layer of translating, as it were, since the first part of the book is narrated by a Russian-speaking bear. The story itself follows three generations of polar bears across the world in a powerful tale of both family and isolation."
Paste Magazine - Lucas Iberico Lozada
"For all the wonderful workings of plot and structure in Memoirs of the Polar Bear, what is truly affecting is Tawada's writing, which jumps off the page and practically sings."
"In this masterful performance of ‘otherness,’ Tawada pushes us to feel the humming possibility between how things appear and what they could be."
"Yoko Tawada’s whimsical ursine family saga expresses a powerful sense of justice."
"The novel’s eldest bear describes writing as a ''''''''dangerous acrobatic stunt.'''''''' In
Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada executes this stunt with the effortless grace of a seasoned circus performer."
Words Without Borders - Thomas Michael Duncan
In her latest novel, Tokyo-born, Berlin-based Tawada, winner of the Akutagawa Prize, presents an unusual cast of characters: three generations of polar bears famed behind the Iron Curtain as circus performers and writers. The Soviet-born matriarch, proud of her performance skills if annoyed by her girly outfits, wins acclaim for her autobiographical Thunderous Applause for My Tears but begins to question her life and emigrates to Canada. Daughter Tosca triumphs in East Germany with a trick called the Kiss of Death, performed with a ponytailed trainer who isn't nearly as interesting as her charge. Tosca's son, Knut, born in a Leipzig zoo and happily bonding with his human trainer in Berlin, woefully recognizes the limits of his freedom when another trainer takes over. Throughout, Tawada's sleek, matter-of-fact prose makes us feel as if there's nothing unusual about having ursine protagonists. VERDICT This engaging fable is not just for animal lovers, though Tawada quietly shames us with human beastliness.
Three generations of polar bears navigate life as celebrities among humans.Japanese author Tawada’s (The Bridegroom Was a Dog, 2012, etc.) latest novel revisits her themes of cultural alienation and ephemerality as she follows three generations—grandmother, mother, and son—of intrepid polar bears, each getting a separate chapter. The grandmother, a naïve but brilliant ex–circus performer who lives in the Soviet Union, writes an autobiography which becomes an overnight literary hit in Europe. Inadvertently, it leads to her political exile in Canada, where she's forced to abandon her native Russian, a language that once “remained at my side, touching soft spots within me.” Her daughter, Tosca, a former ballet dancer living in East Germany, joins the circus and becomes ensconced in an intimate relationship with her emotionally fragile trainer, Barbara—the two communicate secretly, while Barbara sleeps, in a “sphere situated halfway between the animal and human worlds.” As the familiar subtly descends into the bizarre, Tawada lithely undulates between past and present, subconscious and reality. In the final chapter, Tosca’s estranged son, Knut, spends his days playing with Matthias, his human keeper (and stand-in mother), before a captive audience at the Berlin Zoo. Soon after Matthias is forced to leave the zoo, Knut begins to receive nightly visits from Michael, a man “as smooth and elegant as a black panther,” whose hardships bear an uncanny resemblance to Knut’s. It’s uncertain whether Michael’s omnipresence is real, a vivid apparition—sometimes he watches Knut from a cloud, other times he speaks to him from a glowing computer screen—or perhaps Knut’s moral conscience personified. But this persistent mystery is what is so enchanting about Tawada’s writing. Her penetrating irony and deadpan surrealism fray our notions of home and combine to deliver another offbeat tale. An absorbing work from a fascinating mind.
"An absorbing work from a fascinating mind." ---Kirkus Starred Review