Yoko Tawada is a Japanese author who, in her early twenties, moved to Germany in order to study and has been living there since. A rather prolific author, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese and her works are steadily becoming more and more known worldwide. As a Japanese woman living in Europe, the perspective she offers through her writing is truly unique and very fascinating, as it perfectly captures the feelings of expats without becoming overly dramatic.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is her most recent novel that’s translated from German to English by Susan Bernofsky, and thanks to the wonderful Lizzy I got the chance to read it as part of the German Literature Month, something I’m really grateful for (you can read Lizzy’s review over here). Coincidentally, the novel was awarded the very first Warwick prize for Women in Translation earlier this month, a prize which in my opinion was very well deserved.
Employing the technique of magical realism, the novel is divided into three parts, each one recounting the story of a polar bear, starting with the grandmother (whose name is unknown), moving on with the daughter (Tosca) and finishing up with the grandson (Knut). The first part, “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory”, is narrated in first person by the polar bear herself as she relates her journey from Russia to Germany to Canada and back to Germany. While working at the circus, like all the polar bears of the novel do, she decides to start writing her autobiography, an attempt which renders her quite popular. Language and writing are two major themes which Tawada uses throughout this novel, as the first bear is constantly faced with linguistic barriers, something which might reflect Tawada’s own initial experience abroad. This dialogue of the polar bear with her editor conveys brilliantly this struggle with language:
“The language gets in my way.”
“Well, to be specific: German.”
[….] “I thought we had communicated quite clearly that you are to write in your own language, since we have a fantastic translator.”
“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”
“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”
“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian anymore.”
In the second part, “The Kiss of Death”, we are following Tosca, the daughter’s story. Instead of hearing the bear’s own voice like in the first part, however, here the narrator is Tosca’s human female partner in the circus. Thus, Tosca’s story is initially given through human eyes, but as the relationship between the two deepens further and further, their voices start intermingling and converging and in a way which only magical realism can justify, the woman hears Tosca’s voice in her mind and the words she eventually utters are not her own but the bear’s. Interestingly enough, this intermingling of voices (and identities, to an extent) happens after the woman decides to start writing Tosca’s biography, since, unlike her mother, Tosca is unable to write and communicate with the other humans. I found it particularly intriguing how the woman, who plays such a central role to this part and to Tosca’s life, remains unnamed throughout, just like Tosca’s bear mother in the previous part.
The woman’s obsession with communicating with Tosca ends up becoming a setback to her marriage, as her husband feels like the woman has rather lost touch with reality. This reminds me of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, where the protagonist’s obsession with not consuming meat or anything related to it also becomes detrimental to her marriage. Much like in the first part, language and communication become major issues, along with those of identity, femininity and maternality.
“Memories of the North Pole”, the third part, introduces us to Knut, Tosca’s son. Once again, Tawada beautifully plays with the narrative voices, as the narration here focuses on Knut and his perspective but is in third person. Later on it is revealed that it was Knut narrating his story all along, but he preferred using the third person even when referring to himself.
Like his mother and grandmother before him, Knut is working at the circus. Having never met his mother, he is being raised and taken care of by Matthias and Christian, who also work at the circus. Again, the issue of language ad communication is raised but I felt like the most prevailing theme here was that of family, relationships and familial bonds. Homosexuality is also brought up, since Matthias and Christian become Knut’s “parents” and the parallels to a homosexual couple bringing up a child are easily drawn.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a short but very rich book. Throughout the novel, there are many hints/metaphors for race (the whiteness of a polar bear’s fur contrasted with the brownness of a normal bear’s fur, which is much more commonly seen), immigration and different cultural backgrounds (the bears live among humans and they are of different species, so perhaps that insinuates different ethnicities?) and all those themes and issues raised could not be more relevant to today’s society.
I absolutely adored Tawada’s writing. It was beautiful and I wanted to savour each and every word. Despite its short length, this isn’t a novel to be devoured in a few hours, not only because of all the different themes it’s packed with but also because all the nuances of Tawada’s prose will be unfortunately missed. I definitely feel like I can never praise this book highly enough and my own words fail in conveying the magnificence of this novel. I will end this review with one of my favourite quotes:
“And there, in darkness, the grammars of many languages lost their color, they melted and combined, then froze solid again, they drifted in the ocean and joined the drifting floes of ice.”