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.


Book Review: The Last Bear

The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold (illustrated by Levi Pinfold), is a magical tale about a lonely girl and her unusual friend. Set on Bear Island, an outpost between Norway and Svalbard inhabited only by wildlife and research scientists, it offers a warning about the impact of climate change wrapped around an exhilarating adventure, beautifully told.

The protagonist is April Wood, the eleven year old daughter of an academic still grieving the loss of his beloved wife seven years previously. April is happiest when alone with nature – in her back garden or on visits to her grandmother on the coast. She finds school a trial.

“April didn’t like school, or the girls at school didn’t like her. She didn’t know whether it was because she smelled of fox or the fact she was the smallest girl in her class or even that she cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors. Either way, April didn’t mind too much because she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.”

When April’s father is offered a six month position at a weather station in the Arctic Circle, his daughter is delighted. She imagines the fun they will have spending time together, sledging and exploring. Her father is often so wrapped up in his work he barely seems to notice she exists.

On the journey to Bear Island, April meets Tör, the ship captain’s son, who mentions that there are no longer any bears at her destination. However, three weeks after she arrives at the small cabin she and her father will call home for the arctic summer, she comes face to face with an injured and emaciated polar bear. She calls him Bear and sets about earning his trust.

Contrary to expectations, the important work her father is doing for the Norwegian Government takes up all of his time. April is therefore left to her own devices. She explores the island, slowly forming a bond with Bear. She intuits his backstory from the knowledge she can glean and the affinity she has developed with all wildlife. She determines to help Bear but must work out how.

The author has taken certain liberties with what would be reality to paint the island and April’s adventures there as an enchanting time. Throughout, however, tension builds to the almost unbearable climax. The reader will become invested in Bear’s prospects as April risks everything to try to offer him the chance of a less lonely life.

Such a story couldn’t work without the skill of the author in creating her fully formed characters with the lightest of exposition. April’s attitude, bravery and stoicism will appeal to children and adults alike. The young girl takes her disappointments and turns them into opportunities. Her observations of people and place bring them to life.

The author writes in her note at the end of her passion for the planet.

“how it needs our protection and how anyone, no matter how big or small, can inspire hope and create change”

Although weaving this into her story she succeeds in avoiding polemic. At its heart this is a tale of a lonely girl seeking love, finding it, and choosing to set it free despite the personal cost. It is an adventure crying out to be made into a dialogue free animated film, preferably harnessing the illustrator’s stunning pictures. I adored the story and recommend it to every reader, whatever their age.

The Last Bear is published by Harper Collins.