Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yōko Tawada translated by Susan Bernofsky
Publication: March 2nd 2017 by Portobello Books
Format: Paperback Pages: 256
‘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”.’ – Portobello Books
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a short and wonderful book that’s an interesting mix of reality and fantasy making it a surreal read. The book is formed of three parts, the first is told from the perspective of grandmother bear who used to be a circus performer, the second is about Barbara the animal trainer and Tosca (the first polar bear’s daughter), and the third is about Knut (Tosca’s son). Out of the three, Knut’s story was my favourite and it was also the saddest. I was surprised to learn that Knut was a real bear at the Berlin Zoological Garden, if you don’t know Knut’s story, I’d suggest reading the book first.
The unnamed grandmother’s part was most confusing to me to start off with because at the time she writes her memoir, there’s seamless communication between humans and animals. It was as though she were human too (but she isn’t, she’s a polar bear). When we get to Tosca’s part, there appears to be some struggle in communication, it’s not as easy and natural as it was in the grandmother’s part of the story. Finally, in Knut’s section, there’s no verbal communication between Knut and the humans. There appears to be a degeneration in communication as each generation takes over and I thought this was interesting. I was, of course, left with many unanswered questions. For example, are the polar bears actually human and do they simply perceive themselves as animals? Or is the author making the polar bears act as humans to make us question what the difference between humans and animals is?
At times I felt like the story became too surreal for my liking, I was confused and that put me off reading. I didn’t know when I should take a certain description or turn of events with a pinch of salt or if it was something I should spend time dissecting it. I went through a large chunk of the book thinking okay I’ll keep reading maybe it’ll make sense later. This wasn’t too much of an issue because, for the most part, I absolutely loved the writing itself and enjoyed spending time simply reading the way Yoko Tawanda wrote, which speaks volumes about the translator, Susan Bernofsky’s, skills. Those interested in political satire and philosophy might like this book.
You can read the first chapter of Memoirs of a Polar Bear here.