Blurring the Lines
The enduring and lasting relationship between animals and human beings have long been the subject of fascination for many years. This has been captured in documentaries and in films. It is a relationship that is riddled with volatility because of how the human race have basically neglected its duty to take care of its environment. The vast world of literature is also abound with representations of this strained but seminal relationship. Yōko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a fine and timely example.
As the book’s title suggests, Memoirs of a Polar Bear relates the story of three polar bears, belonging to three different generations. The novel is divided in three parts. The first part related the story of an unnamed matriarch, a former circus performer born in the Soviet Union. Post-retirement as a circus performer, she took on an administrative role at the circus, representing it in conferences and formal dinners. Her retirement also allowed her to pursue one of her dreams – writing. Her writings translated into the memoir which formed the base of the novel.
It was also because of her writings that the Soviet authorities started cracking down on her. An organization known as KAOS (Keeping Authors Out of Siberia) soon arranged for her escape to Germany. However, Germany proved no safe haven as neo-Nazis started attacking her for being from Moscow. She was again forced to move, now to Canada where her daughter, Tosca was born.
“After the death of all living creatures, all our unfulfilled wishes and unspoken words will go on drifting in the stratosphere, they will combine with one another and linger upon the earth like fog. What will this fog look like in the eyes of the living? Will they fail to remember the dead and instead indulge in banal meteorological conversations like: “It’s foggy today, don’t you think?”~ Yōko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear
The middle part of the narrative then tackles the story of Tosca. With the shift in the narrative comes a change in setting. The story yet again moved, now to pre-unification East Germany where Tosca worked as a ballet dancer. She was hired by the national circus to put on a magnificent show before the next visit of Kremlin. Tosca’s story, unlike the first and the third parts, was related through a human’s perspective, that of Barbara, a ringmaster who trained Tosca for her Kremlin performance.
The third and last part relates the story of Tosca’s estranged son, Knut. Knut was born after Tosca was sold to the Berlin Zoo but Tosca rejected her son. Knut was then raised by Matthias, an environmental activist. Knut, without realizing it, has been become part of an experiment-cum-enterprise that aims to prove that humans can raise polar bears. Knut has also become a symbol for the endless pursuit for informing people about the implications of climate change.
However, the novel is no simple memoir or tale about polar bears whose lives have been divided by circumstances. It grappled with a diverse set of subjects that are both timely and seminal. There were, however, two primary subjects that were subtly but repeatedly underscored all through out the narrative. The historical references, especially in the earlier parts, were rife with the depiction of life in a totalitarian society.
It can also be observed that in the changing backgrounds, Tawada wove diverse political subjects, including the censorship for writings that are against the primary political regime. In one critical scene, the publisher Sea Lion admonished the unnamed matriarch, telling her that her “experiences are important, not your thoughts.” The anonymous protagonist repeatedly underscored the repressive regime that has kept her locked, with the circus as a microcosm for what would soon be her fate.
“I think hunting used to be important for human survival. Thats no longer the case, but they can’t stop. A human being, perhaps, is made up of many nonsensical movements. But they’ve forgotten the movements necessary for life. These humans are manipulated by what remains of their memories.”~ Yōko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear
Whilst the unnamed matriarch was the poster for the communist regime, her grandson, Knut, would soon be a poster boy as well, but now for capitalism and consumerism. Just like his grandmother and mother before him, Knut ended up being a performer but on a different stage. Knut’s image was marketed and was used by the zoo’s thrift shop in nearly every merchandise they sell, from key chains to t-shirts.
Knut’s story also underlines one of the major themes in the narrative – the impact of climate change. Tawada’s use of polar bears as protagonists was not without purpose but the clarity was only provided at the concluding parts of the novel. Polar bears, after all, are the most vulnerable to the affects of climate change and global warming. They have become the symbol for the fight to curb global warming. The image of a skinny and hungry polar bear atop a solitary floating ice has become ubiquitous. The more important question then is how long are we going ignore the impact of our actions to species whose existence we ignore simply because they do not reveal themselves in more recognizable forms.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear was framed as a memoir but Tawada also wove reflective elements and commentaries into the narrative, some were subtle while some were scathing. Perhaps the most vivid was the conversation that tackled with social classifications. In one scene, a Canadian wolf said that Knut should be in the North Pole with his mother. The reality behind the remark becomes more devastating and relevant as many of us incriminate because of these kind of prejudices. A simple search over the internet would yield several confrontational videos showing how Caucasian Americans assert their perceived supremacy over non-Caucasians. But just like the Canadian wolf, they don’t realize that they are also foreigners living away from their homes.
Tawada, through the three polar bears, wrote about cages, both physical and allegorical. The polar bear are then allegory themselves, the embodiments of humans who are filled with curiosity and wonder but are restricted by circumstances, various kinds of cages. Tawada blurred the lines between human and animal to deliver a narrative that explored shared experiences.
“I always feel myself being thrust back into loneliness when someone tells me it’s cold on a hot day. It isn’t good to talk so much about the weather — weather is a highly personal matter, and communication on the subject inevitably fails.”~ Yōko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear
Tawada weaves a vast landscape that was enchanted with surrealism and magic. The tapestry she wove in Memoirs of a Polar Bear was also rife with the abstract. The mixture of the abstract and the surreal gave the narrative an interesting complexion. However, it was also this unusual mix that weighed down on the narrative. The novel itself is a valiant undertaking, with its main strand diverging to explore other subjects. However, the strand never quite converged. The middle part was especially all over the place.
A somber atmosphere hovered above the narrative. The writing was not terrible but it didn’t flow either. Tawada did just enough to carry the story to a conclusion. The writing was tedious that wasn’t until the end that some clarity was achieved. The nonlinear narrative was beguiling at the onset but it slowly started losing its luster as the narrative moved forward. Rather than making the story flow naturally, Tawada forced the story by using ambitious but awkward writing elements.
Overall, Memoirs of a Polar Bear was an interesting but challenging and inaccessible read. Tawada tried to underscore complex and seminal subjects but the story fell apart. She aimed to deliver a unique reading experience but the execution fell short. It was an ambitious undertaking and one can surmise that there are deeper voices embedded in the story. However, one must sift harder to access these voices which were weighed down by the narrative’s other elements. Memoirs of a Polar Bear held promise but it also lacked direction.
Characters (30%) – 18%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 9%
I was not originally planning on buying or reading Memoirs of a Polar Bear even though I kept on encountering it in the bookstore and in online booksellers. I changed my mind when I saw Tawada’s name favored by many a literary pundit to win the 2018/2019 Nobel Prize in Literature. I then bought this book (the only available here in the Philippines) and included it as part of my May 2020 Japanese Literature Month. I expected a lot of the book because it seems to be everywhere. I guess I expected too much. I surmise that the underlying themes are relevant and timely. The execution, however, fell short. The story was interesting but it was just too disconnected; it just didn’t come together. Nonetheless, I’d be interested to read Tawada’s other works. The Emissary/The Lost Children of Tokyo sound promising.
Author: Yōko Tawada
Translator: Susan Bernofsky
Publisher: Portobello Books
Publishing Date: September 2017
Number of Pages: 252
Genre: Historical Fiction
The first, a diligent memoirist whose unlikely success means she must flee her life in Soviet Russia and seek refuge in East Germany.
The second, her daughter, a skilled dancer performing in an East Berlin circus.
The third, Knut, a baby born and raised in Berlin Zoo at the beginning of the 21st century.
Delicate and enchanting, Memoirs of a Polar Bear takes the reader into foreign bodies and foreign climes, and through its beguiling portrait of three extraordinary bears, gracefully reflects upon our humanity.
About the Author
Yōko Tawada was born on March 23, 1960 in Nakano, Tokyo, Japan.
She attended the Tokyo Metropolitan High School and completed her undergraduate from the prestigious Waseda University in 1982 with a major in Russian literature. After graduating, she moved to Hamburg, Germany to work for one of her father’s partners in a book distribution business. She then left the business to study at Hamburg University, completing her master’s degree in contemporary German literature in 1990. In 2000, she received her doctorate in German literature from the University of Zurich.
In 1987, Tawada made her literary debut with the publication of Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts—Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai (Nothing Only Where You Are), a short story collection which was published in both German and Japanese. Her first novella, Kakato o nakushite (Missing Heels), was published in 1991 and won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. Her other major works include Memoirs of a Polar Bear (English version, 2016), and The Lost Children of Tokyo (English version, 2018).
For her works, Tawada received a score of literary awards such as the 1993 Akutagawa Prize for Inu muko iri, 犬婿入り (The Bridegroom Was a Dog), the 2003 Tanizaki Prize for Yogisha no yako ressha, 容疑者の夜行列車 (Suspect on the Night Train), and the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature for The Emissary (published as The Lost Children of Tokyo in the UK). Tawada also won the 1993 Lessing Prize Scholarship, the 1996 Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, the 2005 Goethe Medal, and the 2016 Kleist Prize.
She currently resides in Berlin, Germany and publishes her work in both German and Japanese.