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.

Robyn Reviews: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is literary fiction with a fantasy twist – the protagonists are polar bears. It chronicles the story of three bears across three generations, each of which lead widely different – yet also incredibly similar – lives. Its a deliberately bizarre book, one which falls apart under any sort of scrutiny, but raises plenty of questions about humanity and modern life.

The story is divided into three chapters, one for each bear. In chapter one, a bear who was once a circus performer starts to write her autobiography after a chance conversation with her building’s superintendent. The memoir becomes a bestseller, eventually leading to her being forced to flee the Soviet Union to avoid internment in Siberia, becoming a refugee first in West Germany and, later, Canada. In chapter two, her daughter Tosca, who grew up in East Germany and trained as a ballet dancer, follows her mother’s legacy into circus life. This chapter is divided – told partially from the point of view of a human performer at the circus, and partially from Tosca’s – and is the most surreal of the three. In chapter three, Tosca’s son Knut – left by his mother to be raised at the Berlin Zoo – grows up raised by the human Matthias, knowing only life in his enclosure. He’s the zoo’s prize star, used to raise awareness of climate change and showed off as an adorable polar bear cub. However, when he accidentally injures Matthias, he’s left alone, with only his thoughts for company.

This is an exceptionally difficult book to review, mostly because its less a piece of fiction and more an elaborate work of social commentary The unnamed bear in chapter one lives much like a human, whereas Knut in chapter three lives like any other animal today – caged. This regression of rights throughout the book is only apparent on reflection: on a first read, it’s simply confusing why some bears have some rights and others have none. The entire book leads the reader to make assumptions and then confront why they’ve made them. Where the first bear has an excellent grasp of human languages, Tosca is mute – and thus the reader is lulled into thinking of them as less intelligent, more animal than human. But why should Tosca’s inability to speak a language make her any less intelligent? Humans jump to conclusions and cognitive biases, and Tawada takes them and frames them so subtly it’s easy to miss on a first or even second read.

Alongside these more abstract concepts, the bears make some direct and piercing observations on humanity. Why do humans always lie to try and spare other’s feelings? Why do humans turn some essential functions, like eating, into an elaborate and pleasurable performance, whereas others, like bowel movements and periods, are taboo? The bears see humans as constantly making life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, and spend a great deal of time trying to figure out why.

All the bears are artists, so there are some equally intriguing comments on the purpose of art and performance, and to what extent life is an elaborate piece of theatre. Knut, especially, having spent his entire life in a zoo, is conscious of always performing. His anxieties about this feel all too human.

While the idea behind this book is exceptionally clever, it does have issues in execution. It was originally written in German, so may flow better in its original language. The second chapter in particular starts to blur dreams and reality, leaving it very unclear what is actually happening. This more spiritual, surrealist element comes across as confusing and jarring to me personally, and makes this section quite hard to read. At times, there’s even a temptation to skip over entire paragraphs. This is also very much a book which demands reflection. Without it, it would be very easy to close the final page with a vague air of dissatisafaction and confusion and write the entire book off as failing to tell any real story.

Overall, ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ is a strong literary novel, despite its fantasy elements, designed more to be thought-provoking than to tell a real story. Recommended for fans of cerebral literary fiction, novels which defy convention, and those with an interest in human psychology.

Published by Granta Books
Paperback: 2nd November 2017