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‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ by Yoko Tawada ****

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.

33126922Memoirs 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.”

“The language?”

“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. IMG_0106

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.”

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‘If This is a Woman’ by Sarah Helm *****

In If This is a Woman, Sarah Helm has written utterly phenomenal study. She tells of the atrocities of Ravensbruck, a German concentration camp during the Second World War, and the only one of its kind exclusively for women prisoners. It is the first book to write extensively about Ravensbruck, one of the final camps to be liberated by the Russians.

9780349120034Only ten percent of Ravensbruck’s prisoners were Jewish, contrary to a lot of other camps; the rest were arrested due to opposition to the Nazi Party, and were drawn from such groups as communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Resistance in various European countries. There were also others deemed ‘asocials’, who ranged from lesbians to Gypsies. Among the prisoners were ‘the cream of Europe’s women’, including various countesses, a former British golfing champion, and the niece of General de Gaulle.

Helm draws upon the published testimonies of Ravensbruck’s prisoners, as well as seeking out those who survived the brutal conditions, and studying records of the court case which followed, aiming as it did to punish those who were in charge. Her research has been carried out impeccably, particularly considering that the majority of the papers relating to prisoners and conditions were burnt before liberation. Helm has aimed to create ‘a biography of Ravensbruck beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, piecing the broken story back together again as best I could’. The death toll from the camp is unknown, but is estimated to be somewhere between 30,000 and 90,000.

Helm’s writing style is immensely readable, and her research meticulous. If This is a Woman is such a well paced account, and the author never shies away from demonstrating how harrowing the conditions were, and how horrific the injuries and deaths which many within Ravensbruck faced. In trying to tell the individual stories of as many women as she possibly could, both prisoners and those who guarded them, she has added an invaluable biography to the field of Holocaust and Second World War studies.

If This is a Woman won the Longman-History Today Prize, which was incredibly well deserved. One can only hope that further accolades follow. <i>If This is a Woman</i> is, without a doubt, one of my favourite historical studies in terms of its far-reaching material and the sensitivity which has been continually demonstrated, as well as one of my books of the year.

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Reading the World: ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’ by Heinrich Boll **

Heinrich Boll, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an author whom I’d heard rather a lot about but had never read.  I decided to rectify this by picking up perhaps his most famous novel in English translation, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  The Sunday Telegraph deems it a ‘novel of compassion and irony’, and The Times writes of the way in which ‘Boll sustains a masterly and insidious tension to the end.  He is detached, angry and totally in control’.  It sounded wonderfully unsettling, particularly when one takes into account the fact that its subtitle is ‘or how violence develops and where it can lead’, and I was rather excited to get started with it.

9780749398989Katharina Blum, our twenty seven-year-old protagonist, is at the ‘centre of a big city scandal’ when, at a party, she ‘falls in love with a young radical on the run from the police.  Portrayed by the city’s leading newspaper as a whore, a communist and an atheist, she becomes the target of anonymous phone calls and sexual threats’.  This drives her to shoot the offending journalist, before giving herself up for arrest.  ‘Step by step, and with an affecting forensic identity, Katharina’s story is reconstructed for the reader, gradually disclosing an entire panorama of human relationship and motive.  The novel is a masterful comment on the law and the press, the labyrinth of social truth and the relentless collusion of fact and fiction’.

The structure works well, in that the whole has been split into very short numbered sections; it is intended to read as something akin to a police report.  I am fine with novels being written in the format of a report, provided that it is done well.  Here, though, I was a little put off by the way in which many of the sections are really rather dull, and have very few redeemable or memorable qualities to them.  Sadly, these lacklustre sections were far more frequent than ones which I found of interest.  The story tends to get bogged down with tiny details.  Whilst it is fascinating, and often scary, to see how the media can affect a life, the real impact here for me came when I related the events of Katharina’s story to the ‘fake news’ scandal which has been going on for longer than we would perhaps like to believe.  The development of the characters in The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was rather slipshod; perhaps this is because we, the readers, learn about the protagonist only through the biased viewpoint of the police.  I certainly lost interest at times, and debated whether to even finish reading the piece.

Unfortunately, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum did next to nothing for me.  The detachment was so acute that I could feel no sympathy for Katharina, and felt merely like an isolated observer.  Its translator has done a good job in rendering it into English, and the phrasing reads well whilst being rather dated; however, I simply found the book too matter-of-fact, and not entirely well paced.  Widely regarded as a German classic, I wonder if I am missing something fundamental with regard to The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum.  I suppose it is fair to say that whilst I liked the general idea of the book, I had rather a few qualms with its execution, and can therefore rate it no higher than two mediocre stars.

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‘Tales of the German Imagination: from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann’, edited by Peter Wortsman ***

Tales of the German Imagination, from the Brothers Grimm to Ingeborg Bachmann, is a ‘collection of fantastical, strange and compelling stories from 200 years of German literature’. It ‘includes such literary giants as the Brothers Grimm, Kafka, Musil and Rilke, as well as many surprising and unexpected voices’.

9780141198804The introduction has been written by translator Peter Wortsman, who has also edited the collection. In it, he states that ‘fear has indeed proven rich fodder for fantasy in the German storytelling tradition’, and that ‘the darkest German literary confections are such a pleasure to read because they are also spiked with humour – therein lies their enduring appeal’. Wortsman goes on to say that in editing the anthology, he has aimed to include stories and extracts ‘from a span of several centuries and from various literary movements born of crisis and doubt’.

Tales of the German Imagination is split into three separate parts, and includes predominantly male authors. In fact, Ingeborg Bachmann, mentioned in the title, is one of only two females featured in the collection. There are some other famous names amongst the authors – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Heinrich Heine and Rainer Maria Rilke, for example. The anthology begins with three stories by the Brothers Grimm – ‘The Singing Bone’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘The Children of Hameln’, which is their telling of a tale more commonly known as ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Whilst these stories are relatively well known in the English speaking world, others from the less popular authors feel fresh and add a nice twist to such a collection.

The stories themselves provide a varied mixture of themes and styles. Some are told from the first person perspective and others from the third, and we are immersed into a variety of historical settings where we meet a whole host of diverse protagonists and bystanders. The settings too are diverse, from Germany to Italy and from the Netherlands to the United States. Several of the tales of much longer than others – ‘The Sandman’ by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘Rune Mountain’ by Ludwig Tieck and ‘Peter Schlemiel’ by Adelbert von Chamisso, for example, read more like novellas than short stories. The majority are standalone pieces, but several of the tales have been taken from longer works of fiction. Throughout, many different themes and literary elements have been made use of, from magic, the unexplained and the macabre to poverty, war and peace and the concept of madness.

The stories themselves have been nicely varied for the most part, and there is sure to be something to suit the tastes of even the most particular short story connoisseur. All relate to the human psyche in some way, and the most stunning and unsettling are provided by the Brothers Grimm, Georg Heym and Kurt Schwitters. Some of the tales are rather disturbed and the subject matter is not easy to read about at times, but the starkness of their telling and events certainly pack a punch. In Georg Heym’s ‘The Lunatic’, his protagonist ‘pranced about with two skulls stuck to his feet, like eggshells he’d just stepped out of and hadn’t yet shaken off… and then he stamped down, splotch, so the brains splattered nicely like a little golden fountain’. In Kurt Schwitters’ ‘The Onion’, the protagonist tells us: ‘It was a very momentous day, the day on which I was to be slaughtered… I had never yet in all my life been slaughtered’.

In some cases, the year in which the story was published is included below its title, but in others the life span of the author is included. This inconsistency is a little confusing at times, as is the way in which none of the stories have been included in a chronological order. Ordering the stories in such a way would have made it easy for the reader to see how the darker elements of German fiction have progressed as the years have passed. The biographical information pertaining to each of the authors has been tucked away in an appendix at the back of the volume, and it is a shame that these short yet informative paragraphs have not been paired with the stories themselves.

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‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore ****

I purchased The Lighthouse just by chance from the Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road on my boyfriend’s birthday.  I remember seeing a few copies about when it was published, but have never read any reviews of it; nor did I know anyone in real life who had read it.  I started it out of intrigue on the same day (and read a large portion of it in the dim light of a Walkabout bar in central Glasgow whilst trying to drown out the sounds of very loud football supporters during an Arsenal game), and was immediately drawn in. 9781907773174

On the novel’s front cover, Margaret Drabble calls the prose ‘low-key’, and I think those two words sum it up perfectly.  Moore’s writing is measured and understated.  She has presented her story and protagonist incredibly well, and at no point did I lose interest.  Each character has been intrinsically pieced together.  Some are not given much of a voice, but they all come across as strikingly realistic beings.  The Lighthouse is psychologically rather intense.  The novel is quite funny in places too; acidly so.

I found it rather interesting that our narrator, Futh, was never identified with a first name; to me, the continual use of his surname showed just how influential his parents – and, in part, his extended family – were, both on his life and in the shaping of his personality.  Moore demonstrates, through this technique, the way in which despite his personal growth and independence, he could never quite break away from his past.  The geography of his past has been well but not precisely mapped; we know of a holiday he went on as a youngster to Cornwall, but are not told of the precise location that he called home.  In his present, however, the name of the first town in Germany to which he travels on his week’s holiday, has been named.  The juxtaposition here is interesting; whilst Futh’s present is arguably more alive because he is able to experience things, Moore makes it clear that his past is what is driving him onward.  The Lighthouse is essentially a story about people and things, not places; the characters here are the pivotal beings which drive the story onward.

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The Brilliance of Non-Fiction: Five New Releases

I am a self-confessed fan of non-fiction books, and often find myself gravitating towards them in bookshops.  I have spent several hours of late in Waterstone’s and London’s excellent Skoob, browsing the history shelves for something which will both captivate and educate me.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you five non-fiction books which I am currently coveting.  For each, I have copied the official blurb to whet your appetite as well as my own.

1. The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson 
“Twenty years ago, Bill Bryson went on a trip around Britain to celebrate the green and kindly island that had become his adopted country. The hilarious book that resulted, Notes from a Small Island, was taken to the nation’s heart and became the bestselling travel book ever, and was also voted in a BBC poll the book that best represents Britain. Now, to mark the twentieth anniversary of that modern classic, Bryson makes a brand-new journey round Britain to see what has changed. Following (but not too closely) a route he dubs the Bryson Line, from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath, by way of places that many people never get to at all, Bryson sets out to rediscover the wondrously beautiful, magnificently eccentric, endearingly unique country that he thought he knew but doesn’t altogether recognize any more. Yet, despite Britain’s occasional failings and more or less eternal bewilderments, Bill Bryson is still pleased to call our rainy island home. And not just because of the cream teas, a noble history, and an extra day off at Christmas. Once again, with his matchless homing instinct for the funniest and quirkiest, his unerring eye for the idiotic, the endearing, the ridiculous and the scandalous, Bryson gives us an acute and perceptive insight into all that is best and worst about Britain today.”

2. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
“Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us. Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome. SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.”

3. The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination by Dominic Sandbrook 
“Britain’s empire has gone. Our manufacturing base is a shadow of its former self; the Royal Navy has been reduced to a skeleton. In military, diplomatic and economic terms, we no longer matter as we once did. And yet there is still one area in which we can legitimately claim superpower status: our popular culture. It is extraordinary to think that one British writer, J K Rowling, has sold more than 400 million books; that Doctor Who is watched in almost every developed country in the world; that James Bond has been the central character in the longest-running film series in history; that The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written (behind only A Tale of Two Cities); that the Beatles are still the best-selling musical group of all time; and that only Shakespeare and the Bible have sold more books than Agatha Christie. To put it simply, no country on earth, relative to its size, has contributed more to the modern imagination. This is a book about the success and the meaning of Britain’s modern popular culture, from Bond and the Beatles to heavy metal and Coronation Street, from the Angry Young Men to Harry Potter, from Damien Hirst toThe X Factor.”

4. The House by the Lake by Thomas Harding
“In the spring of 1993, Thomas Harding travelled to Berlin with his grandmother to visit a small house by a lake. It was her ‘soul place’, she said – a sanctuary she had been forced to leave when the Nazis swept to power. The trip was a chance to see the house one last time, to remember it as it was. But the house had changed. Twenty years later Thomas returned to Berlin. The house now stood empty, derelict, soon to be demolished. A concrete footpath cut through the garden, marking where the Berlin Wall had stood for nearly three decades. Elsewhere were signs of what the house had once been – blue tiles showing behind wallpaper, photographs fallen between floorboards, flagstones covered in dirt. Evidence of five families who had made the house their home over a tumultuous century. The House by the Lake is a ground breaking work of history, revealing the story of Germany through the inhabitants of one small wooden building: a nobleman farmer, a prosperous Jewish family, a renowned Nazi composer, a widow and her children, a Stasi informant. Moving from the late nineteenth century to the present day, from the devastation of two world wars to the dividing and reuniting of a nation, it is a story of domestic joy and contentment, of terrible grief and tragedy, and of a hatred handed down through the generations. It is the long-awaited new work from the best-selling author of Hanns and Rudolf.”

5. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers 
“An epic tale of Vladimir Putin’s path to power, as he emerged from obscurity to become one of the world’s most conflicted and important leaders. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief Steven Lee Myers has followed Putin since well before the recent events in the Ukraine, and gives us the fullest and most engaging account available of his rise to power. A gripping, page-turning narrative about Russian power and prestige, the book depicts a cool and calculating leader with enormous ambition and few scruples. As the world struggles to confront a newly assertive Russia, the importance of understanding Putin has never been greater. Vladimir Putin rose out of Soviet deprivation to the pinnacle of influence in the new Russian nation. He came to office in 2000 as a reformer, cutting taxes and expanding property rights, bringing a measure of order and eventually prosperity to millions whose only experience of democracy in the early years following the Soviet collapse was instability, poverty and criminality. But soon Putin orchestrated the preservation of a new kind of authoritarianism, consolidating power, reasserting his country’s might, brutally crushing revolts and swiftly dispatching dissenters, even as he retained the support of many.”

Which are your favourite non-fiction books, and which newer releases do you hope to read soon?

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