Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

memoirs polar bear

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada (translated by Susan Bernofsky), tells the story of three generations of polar bears, none of whom live in their natural environment. The grandmother is a former circus performer who garnered fame when her memoirs were published. Her child, Tosca, also performs in a circus although her section is as much about her trainer as the bear. Tosca’s son, Knut, is rejected by his mother and raised in the Berlin Zoo where he is also required to perform to a paying audience. All are anthropormorphised, creating an affecting lens through which to view human behaviour and prejudice.

The first section is, perhaps, the most fantastical. It is not just the polar bear who moves among humans – at times attending pointless conferences and living in an apartment – other creatures carry out workaday functions, such as a sealion publisher. The bear writes of her early years and the methods used as she was trained to perform tricks. While this makes clear the cruelties inflicted on captive animals whose owners require them to entertain an audience, it is easy to compare with how human children are trained to act in ways society approves. Other threads lay bare how the corporate world uses those they regard as powerless as a commodity to be exploited. Even when the bear is helped to defect from East to West, her ‘rescuers’ retain a selfish agenda.

The second section offers a picture of life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite being a skilled ballet dancer, Tosca struggled to find the type of work she wanted. Audiences expect to watch lithe and feathery performers on stage, whereas a polar bear is anything but.

“Though she’d graduated from ballet school with top honors, Tosca hadn’t been able to land a role in a single production, not even Swan Lake as everyone had expected. And so she was regularly performing for children.”

When invited to join a circus, Tosca accepts the invitation at once. She learns how her human trainer came to live and work there, a life story told across several interesting settings. The circus remains at the forefront – a microcosm of a closed society within a closed country. It is only at the end of the section that the voice shifts to the bear. Tosca finishes by explaining why she gave up her son.

The third section is more contemporary, with an undercurrent of polemic in its references to climate change. It opens when Knut is a newborn, being raised by experts in the science of animal development and behaviour. The zoo regards this cute, baby polar bear as potential revenue. Others have hopes that Knut will draw attention to why so many of his kind can no longer live in the North Pole. Knut is happy to perform as required but suffers from loneliness, especially when those who raised him leave to focus on other duties.

Like the circus, the zoo is a microcosm. Knut starts in a cage and then a room before being allowed to explore his enclosure and swimming pool. He is taken on walks where he talks to other zoo animals from around the world. At each stage he longs to visit the next ‘outside’ he can hear or has heard of.

Journalists make Knut a celebrity but then mostly lose interest when he grows out of his cute phase – an obvious reference to perceived beauty and aging. Knut learns how to read an audience but struggles with the limitations of his captive existence.

I mention just some of the issues explored. Although a sometimes disjointed tale – with characters introduced to enable particular social commentary – the quirky approach adds to the appeal of what are interesting outlooks from settings that often get negative media representation. The reader is required to accept that these polar bears can live side by side with humans and other creatures without eating them, but as allegory this works.

An unusual trio of interlinked stories written in voices that are strangely appealing. Food for thought for any reader willing to look beyond the superficial and question what so many accept and expect.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is published by Granta.

Robyn’s review of this book may be read here.

2 comments on “Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

  1. An interesting and imaginative social commentary on conditioning, exploitation and that yearning for something unknown. Touchingly reviewed.

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