A colleague at work asked me what I was reading last week.
“I’m reading a novel about Russian polar bears written by a Japanese woman who lives in Berlin and writes in German.”
You’ve probably never heard of this book, either.
I found Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, on the German shelves of the translated literature section at McNally Jackson Bookstore in New York last summer during our Brooklyn summer. McNally Jackson is one of my favorite bookstores and a must visit site if you’re a reader of translated literature.
It’s really the memoir of three polar bears, all performers trying to find their way in a human world. The first, the matriarch, spends her life in a Russian circus during the early days of the Soviet Union. She’s a polar bear, but she is also a dedicated party member, a fighter for the class revolution. Her memoir of circus life deals with labor struggles, threats of strike actions, intra-party mechanizations.
Her daughter Tosca, moves to a circus in East Germany in the years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her son, Knut, lives in a reunited Germany, in a zoo, where he serves as a symbol in the fight against climate change.
It’s kind of a strange book.
To be honest, I have not decided just how much of the book is meant to be taken as story or as allegory. Am I really reading a book about polar bears, or am I reading a book about the people who lived through the arc of communism?
But I enjoyed it in any case.
One thing I enjoyed are the games Ms. Tawada plays with the narrative voice, It’s challenging to figure out who is telling the “memoir.” In the first part, it’s clearly the polar bear, which leads to all sorts of narrative fun. The second part was not so clear to me. The narrative seemed to be in the hands of a human trainer telling us about Tosca, but now and then things would slip into what could only be Tosca’s point of view, Or is the human trainer just playing a narrative game of her own, moving into Tosca’s mind when it suits her needs?
The third part is told by Knut, the bear, but when the story opens, he is simply a motherless cub, picking up what language he can from the two men who take care of him. His story remains in the third person until he is old enough to understand how the pronoun “I” is used at which point the narrative becomes first person. Except, it really was in the first person all along.
This transition occurs in a page and half of text that puzzled and surprised me just as the pronoun “I” puzzled and surprised Knut.
While Memoirs of a Polar Bear doesn’t quite make it to my list of “New Favorite Books,” I am going to keep my copy to reread in retirement. It’s very good, and I suspect it will reveal much more of itself upon a second reading.
And who doesn’t love a book narrated by polar bears?