In the super-globalized world of 2017, novels are often used to examine the personal challenges of immigration and adapting to different environments. But even by today’s standards, it’s pretty worldly for a book to take place across three continents and to be written in German by a Japanese author (Yoko Tawada), translated into English (by Susan Bernofsky), and then reviewed in the United States (by me). What really sets Memoirs of a Polar Bear apart from other books, though, is where the three main characters come from: the North Pole.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is the story of three generations of famous polar bears, each attempting to fit into a human-centric world. The story unfolds in three acts, each focusing on a different bear. The book could possibly exist as three novellas, as the only way the parts connect is through their shared history and themes.
Memoirs begins with the story of an unnamed female polar bear, whose ability to speak, write and generally communicate with humans is pretty much unquestioned. She’s living in Kiev and working in an office when one day she decides to write her autobiography. She writes about her childhood working in a circus, in which her trainer Ivan teaches her how to walk on two legs and eventually talk. The autobiography becomes a success, and she is eventually flown to West Germany to work on it more under pressure from a human boss. She quickly grows tired of writing about her past, though, and instead wants to write about the future, including the stories of her daughter Tosca and grandson Knut. It is this that brings us to the other two stories.
Tosca and Knut’s stories are similar, and yet show different elements of the same predicament. Tosca’s section is told from the perspective of Barbara, Tosca’s trainer at the circus. Knut’s story, on the other hand, is from his own perspective, in which he is brought to the zoo at an early age and learns to perform for crowds. In both stories, the polar bear builds a deep relationship with a human, able to communicate in a sort of dream-language. Tosca and Knut are actually based on two real bears of the same name that lived in the Berlin Zoological Garden, though the real bears did not have the ability to speak and write. It’s not necessary to know about the real bears to enjoy Memoirs, but it is certainly interesting to see how Tawada used their lives to inspire the book.
It is probably best to address the bear in the room, though: the fact that this book features polar bears is significant to the story. Humans and animals exist more closely in Tawada’s world than the real one, but that does not mean they coexist completely. The considerations of human rights, for example, takes on greater meaning when there are citizens of a country who are capable of speech who don’t fall under the “human” label. Also, it is hard to think about polar bears without thinking about global warming, which is touched on at times in the book. In the zoo, Knut becomes inspiration for people to act on climate change, but he himself does not think about it much. It is the image of Knut that becomes an environmental advocate, not Knut himself, and he struggles with this divide. Like George Orwell and Franz Kafka (who is mentioned a number of times in the book), Tawada uses the polar bears as allegorical figures and symbols to great effect.
The bears’ troubles reflect those of humans around the world. Many people in the United States, for example, can relate to Knut’s complaints that everybody assumes he’s from the North Pole, even though he’s never actually been there. On the more extreme side of discrimination, Tosca’s mother is attacked by neo-Nazis in West Germany because she said she is from Moscow. Living as an animal lends them the ultimate outsider status to human society, and yet you can tell that the treatment they face is not so different from that of oppressed people around the world.
One of the greatest barriers between the bears and humans is language, which plays an important role in the lives of these bears. Each of them learns to communicate with humans, though Tosca and Knut are only really able to speak with the people who they grow close to. In Knut’s story, in particular, language is built from the ground up, as he learns words like “milk” and “stand” one at a time. It is not for some time that he learns he should refer to himself not as “Knut,” but as “I.” Over time, the characters build more complex grammars and deeper relationships with their human trainers.
Each of them feels the importance of being able to communicate their stories to others, especially the matriarch, who feels the compulsion to set down her story to paper. Not that she is a masterful writer; she gets mad at her translator for turning her “bearish sentences into artful literature.” When she’s moved from Russia to Germany, she even tries to learn German to make her translator’s life easier, but is told, “No, that’s out of the question! You have to write in your own mother tongue. You’re supposed to be pouring out your heart, and that needs to happen in a natural way.” Given that Tawada doesn’t always write in her “mother tongue,” you can imagine there may be some irony in this statement. Memoirs of a Polar Bear also seems to be the autobiography that Tosca’s mother set out to write, making the book all the more interesting to consider. After all, I’m reading a real-world translation of a fictional translation.
The lyricism and beautiful writing present throughout Memoirs of a Polar Bear makes the language far from bearish. It can be difficult to get past the strange premise, but once you do, it opens into a complex story that touches on fame, immigration, climate change, human rights, war and any number of other topics. Tawada continues in a line of authors who show that books about animals can provide great insight into being human.
This is the second article in our series Babbeling Books. We’re spotlighting non-English books, new and old, that interact with language or language-learning in some way. If you have any books that you think we should cover next, let us know at email@example.com or in the comments. Our only requirement is that the book must have been originally published in a language other than English.