Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yōko Tawada
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 2016; 252 pp
Reviewed by Britny Brooks
“I promised to write down your life story. But so far I’ve only been talking about my own. I’m terribly sorry.”
“That’s all right. First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.” (138)
It is surprising how easy it is to forget that humans, at our core, are just mammals. Yet, Memoirs of a Polar Bear asks us to look at ourselves and reminds us with a gentle, but precise hand that the line between animal and human is one that is easily blurred. The novel is comprised of three novellas and follows three generations of polar bears. The first is the unnamed matriarch who was raised in the circus, later gets a desk job, has interesting opinions on bicycles, socialism and the life of the writer, and then goes on to write a bestselling autobiography. The second is Tosca, her daughter, who is a talented dancer and becomes a circus performer famous for an intimate tango act with her trainer Barbara called “The Kiss of Death,” which ends with an open-mouth kiss. Later, Tosca is moved to the Berlin Zoo after the circus is dissolved, begins her literary career by writing Barbara’s biography, and gives birth to the third and final main character, Knut. Knut is taken in and loved by Matthias, one of the zoo’s caretakers, and grows up to be an international star and the unwitting face of a growing campaign for environmental protection. Interesting fact: both Tosca and Knut are real polar bears and their circumstances in the book mirror their real lives both in and out of the Berlin Zoo.
What makes this book so striking is that Tawada uses surrealism as a way to explore humanity that is at once exciting, touching, and—sometimes—very confusing. Perspectives change, the rules of the world and communication between the bears and humans are shaky at best, time is fluid, and dreams are sometimes more important than reality. Many times throughout the story you might feel as if the polar bears’ sense of time and existence is simultaneous and cyclical, which often throws traditional “human” logic out the window—but isn’t that the way with dreams?
Just as we do, the matriarch dreams of the future and the path her descendents will follow when she is gone. Tosca and Barbara speak to each other and share their stories in dreams. Knut dreams of his grandmother as he struggles to understand his place and purpose in the zoo as well as his relationship with his mother and heritage. Tawada twists the complex aspects of humanity with surrealism into an idea that is beautiful and magical—that humans and animals can share dreams. She asks us to see ourselves, through the beautiful strangeness of polar bears, as the animals that we are.