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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Tawada Yoko

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To purchase Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Title: Memoirs of a Polar Bear
Author: Tawada Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 252 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Memoirs of a Polar Bear - US
Memoirs of a Polar Bear - UK
Memoirs of a Polar Bear - Canada
Histoire de Knut - France
Etüden im Schnee - Deutschland
  • German title: Etüden im Schnee
  • Translated by Susan Bernofsky

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Our Assessment:

B+ : finely spun bear-tales -- at its best when least constrained

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 1/12/2016 .
Harper's . 11/2016 Christine Smallwood
Irish Times . 25/2/2017 Eileen Battersby
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/11/2016 Ramona Ausubel
TLS . 9/6/2017 M.René Bradshaw
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2016 Jacky Tideman

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ms Tawada respects the actual behaviour of bears even as her ursine authors inspect the vanity of humankind through an outsider’s -- or a migrant’s -- eyes. (...) Ms Tawada, though, has a deadpan wit and disorienting mischief all her own, nimbly translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky." - The Economist

  • "Memoirs of a Polar Bear is smart and weird, if a little muted; it didn’t knock me out like Tawada’s novella The Bridegroom Was a Dog." - Christine Smallwood, Harper's

  • "It is all calmly offbeat and conversational, yet the subtext is philosophical, political and often profound. For all the humour and absurdist flourishes, Tawada is not writing a comedy. (...) It is a book which begins as a delightful role reversal rich in physical sensation and whimsy, yet the intense emotion and powerful sense of justice suggest that Yoko Tawada believes that engagement is the most effective method of communicating the distorted mirror through which we look at the world." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a study of blurred lines: the line between human and animal, the line between one person’s (or creature’s) story and another’s, the line between love and exploitation. (...) Memoirs of a Polar Bear hums with beautiful strangeness." - Ramona Ausubel, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Translated into English from the German by Tawada’s longtime translator Susan Bernofsky, the strangeness of language is emphasized on every page, plunging us into the narrators’ uncanny encounters with communication." - M. René Bradshaw, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The author fills the audience with expectations and then fulfills them in unexpected ways. (...) The novel at times feels tangential and long-winded, only to thrust you back into the true setting." - Jacky Tideman, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a three-part novel, presenting (among other things) the life-stories of three generations of polar bears, each recounted by each successive bear, in their unique voices and with rather different approaches (both the second and third parts suggest a different narrator -- first person and omniscient -- at the beginning, before the bears behind the voices reveal themselves).
       The first part is titled 'The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory' and features arguably the most remarkable of the ursine protagonists, the one who leads the most colorful (and far-flung) life. She is also presented as in many ways human-like, including (but hardly limited to) having the ability to speak and write. Living in the Soviet Union, she was a circus bear who lucked out after she overtaxed her knees with Latin American dancing, rendering her unfit for circus (performance) work:

Ordinarily they would have just shot me, but I got lucky and was assigned a desk job in the circus's administrative offices.
       Tawada presents this character beautifully, as a bear that functions essentially like a human, and where her different appearance and nature are noticed but hardly considered remarkable -- she is somewhat alien to this world, but no more than any foreigner from a different culture is. She has a standard-issue apartment, she attends and participates in conferences, and even if her way of seeing her work differs slightly from that of her human colleagues -- "My nose could sniff out the difference between important and unimportant bills" -- she is a very good worker, "a born office manager".
       She only has vague memories of her childhood, but wants to look back on them; her concierge suggests she write an autobiography as a way of getting at the past -- and that's exactly what she does. She knows: "I want to write to call back to mind something I can no longer remember". Writing becomes an exercise in finding herself, and her past -- but also alters her present. Bringing her pages to an old admirer, she gets published -- and taken advantage of some, too (her publisher has an: "unorthodox approach to his métier"). And eventually she comes to the attention of the authorities, who soon have other ideas for her in a Soviet Union where writers are still considered potentially dangerous figures. A Siberian exile doesn't sound half-bad to the cold-longing polar bear, but others take it upon themselves to help her out of what they see as her predicament.
       In a way, this part of her life is much like that of many dissident authors of the time -- even as she takes a more passive role, more or less allowing her future to be decided for her without participating in any of the decision-making. She does embrace the possibility of exile in Germany -- even if her hosts there are disappointed when she wants to turn to writing in German, as they wish she'd remain the Russian-writing dissident they can sell to the domestic audience.
       Tawada's bear is a remarkable creation, self-aware yet also instinctual, and curious about all the new things she encounters (getting a bank account and an ATM card) but easily accepting them without wondering too much about how anything functions or the reasons behind it.
       The bear frequents a bookshop, and is introduced to the works of Kafka -- and, while she has a gut reaction is also willing to let herself be guided some in the possible ways of reading his work.
       Eventually she travels on to Canada, before following her husband back to East Germany. She gives birth, and her surviving child, Tosca, is the bear at the heart of the second part of the novel.
       Tosca's mother's memoir, recounting childhood memories of otherness and difficulties of fitting in, as well as the account of her adult life presented in the first part is very different from the Tosca-section. Tosca -- who eventually finds herself also in a circus -- tells her trainer of her mother's accomplishment, and laments:
     "I, on the other hand, can't write anything at all."
     "Why not ?" I asked.
     "My mother already described me as a character in her book."
       Tosca's trainer, Barbara, volunteers to write Tosca's story, and she appears to tell both her own and Tosca's here -- though in fact it is Tosca writing all along, having assumed Barbara's voice to begin with (eager to: "narrate the magnificent life story of my friend Barbara"). Tosca's creative approach to the presentation of her and Barbara's lives already marks a next step, the writer not strict documenter, but playing with form like a novelist might.
       Along with the background tales, the focus here is on the East German circus where they both appear, with Barbara trying to put an act together with the nine polar bears gifted to the circus by the Soviet Union. The other polar bears don't make life easy -- they form a union, for one thing -- and it's difficult putting a proper act together, but eventually they have success with a 'Kiss of Death'-act.
       This part is, in large part, inspired by real-life circus artist (and real-life-Tosca trainer) Ursula Böttcher -- who performed the 'Kiss of Death' with a similar polar-bear background -- and who, like Barbara, had: "a bear hidden in the name" ('Bar' in 'Barbara; 'ursus' in 'Ursula'). Similarly, the final part of the novel is inspired by the story of (real-life) Tosca's son, the zoo polar bear Knut (2006-2011) that she abandoned and who became a popular attraction and celebrity of (bear) sorts.
       Tosca and Knut are, for the most part, presented not as quite as human-like as the original bear, unable to speak or write as readily -- or at least long not admitting to it. Eventually, however, Tosca does admit, for example, that one of the reasons for her abandoning Knut is that: "because of my literary work I didn't have enough time for him" (and, for example, after Reunification, Tosca does buy: "a computer and suggested to Barbara that we keep in touch by e-mail").
       If the stories of the first two bears are defined by their literary struggles and work, Knut's reminiscences remain largely internal -- though Tawada nicely switches from third to first person early in his account, after the sun complains to the young Knut: "A bear speaking in the third person ? I haven't heard anything that hilarious in a long time". It takes a bit of adjusting for Knut to get used to referring to himself, and telling his story, in the first person -- yet another of the clever examples Tawada brings up here, of how we can tell our stories and examine out lives (one of the novel's many themes).
       The bears' stories all examine the role of family, and differing expectations of parenthood, among other ways in which animal and human behavior differ. Knut bonds with his human handlers (and suffers abrupt loss here too), but each of the bears also feels little guilt about behaving, bear-like, like an island. So also Tosca shows maternal pride, even as she shows little regret about abandoning her child.
       The animal-nature of the animals, and their fish-out-of-water existences -- Tawada repeatedly reminding us of their longing for the otherwise forbidding icy cold -- is particularly well-handled, the animals readily adapting even to their cages, yet always maintaining an individualist streak and a self-confidence, grounded in their polar-bear-essence, regardless of how they are treated or perceived by others. And the multi-layered Memoirs of a Polar Bear also plays in many wonderful ways with writing and literature, from its Kafka-readings to the the different story-telling approaches of the bears. (Tawada's range, and playful writing, -- and Susan Bernofsky's handling of these in translation -- also impress throughout.)
       This is an impressive novel, flying highest in its inspired and near-perfectly done first section. The other two, however, are burdened by the weight of reality: in building these on real-life figures, Tawada limits some of what she can do; reality (and media-familiarity) hold her fiction back, and even if her Knut-story appeals and is of interest as such, it can't compare to the artistry of the more freely-imagined first section. (Even the first section, of course, tells an in many ways familiar story of the writer in the totalitarian state and then in exile, but as treated proves much less constraining.)
       Perhaps more three-story-collection than novel -- there is some well-done overlap, and the variations on several recurring themes do tie everything together, but these are in many ways distinct pieces, too, -- Memoirs of a Polar Bear is is a wonderfully varied and tricksy (in the best possible ways) work, offering great pleasure in its details (and writing), as well as larger wholes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 November 2016

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Memoirs of a Polar Bear: Reviews: Tawada Yoko: Other books by Tawada Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tawada Yoko (多和田葉子) was born in Tokyo in 1960 and moved to Germany when she was 22. She writes in both Japanese and German.

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