Book review

When polar bears do a better job than people at explaining the human condition

The world of humans seems more real when seen through the perception of these animals.

Bears in various forms have been popular in myth and fiction for thousands of years, from Inuit traditions and the Greek myth of Callisto to John Irving’s cameo appearances of bears in his novels, and from William Kotswinkle’s bear-turned-New York literary sensation to, of course, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, and The Three Bears. We respect them and are in awe of their size, physical strength, and seemingly introspective intelligence. Not to mention bear cubs are so cuddly they inspired the ubiquitous teddy bear.

Yoko Tawada, award-winning novelist who was born in Tokyo and lives in Germany, has no fewer than three bears starring as main characters in her novel, along with a cast of other bears and non-bear animals (including those of the human species).

The genesis of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is the story of a real polar bear named Knut. Born in the Berlin Zoo in 2006, the polar cub was rejected by its mother, a rescued circus performing bear named Tosca. A zoo employee named Thomas Dörflein became the cub’s surrogate mother, even spending the night with the cub.

The public was captivated and showed up in great entrance-fee-paying numbers. Despite the public’s adoration of Knut, his human upbringing was controversial, declared by activists as unnatural and even cruel, especially after Dörflein gets cancer, then dies of a heart attack when Knut was still young.

The matriarch

The first of the polar bears in Tawada’s novel is the matriarch, born in Canada but living in the Soviet Union after a stint as a performing bear. She a member of the Party and writes an autobiography which becomes a best-seller. The main theme of her book is adjusting to life away from the wilds of Canada, a new life that is challenging and confusing, yet philosophically interesting. The bear’s observations of humans and other animals (whom the bear understands when they talk, or write) are deep and complex, often disorienting, and sometimes very funny:

“Since [pandas] are born wearing such impressive makeup, they don’t make any effort to be interesting. They neither master any stageworthy tricks nor write autobiographies.”

As author, the bear often struggles to write. She finds the process of writing as time-warping as do human writers:

“Writing: a spooky activity. Staring at the sentence I’ve just written makes me dizzy. Where am I at this moment? I’m in my story – gone. To come back, I drag my eyes away from the manuscript and let my gaze drift toward the window until finally I’m here again, in the present. But where is here, when is now?”

Tosca

But, as did the “real” world, the bear and her husband and young daughter, Tosca, grow weary of the repressive Soviet version of communism. They flee to East Germany for the relatively grander economic opportunities. There, Tosca, a graduate with top honours from the best ballet school, becomes a renowned circus bear who creates an elaborate and dangerous act called “The Kiss of Death”. Seen from the viewpoint of her trainer, Barbara, Tosca is more than mere animal to be trained:

“The next day, Tosca and I once more practice coming onstage, bowing, and exiting. From time to time Tosca looked deep into my eyes and seemed to be alluding to something. Apparently it wasn’t just in my imagination that we’d spoken: we really were entering a sphere situated halfway between the animal and human worlds.”

Tosca’s thoughts come to life through a biography that Barbara is writing from the bear’s point-of-view. Tosca’s life is shown to be full of intelligence, service to other animals, and desire to communicate and perform. She is able to achieve her dreams with Barbara as her performing partner.

Knut

The third bear is Knut, Tosca’s son, fathered by Lars, another performing polar bear. Knut’s trainer is named Matthias, who raises Knut as had the real trainer, Dörflein. Through Knut’s thoughts, we see the wonder of learning what it means to exist in the world, even if that world is a zoo. Knut is gradually exposed to the other animals, some who resent the cub’s attention. We feel Knut’s anxious need to be part of society, whatever that society wishes us to be, at least until we are cognisant of our individuality.

Every day, Knut devoted two hours to public service. It was his responsibility to play with Matthias in the enclosure. Rapturous excitement kept bubbling up in the audience, whose faces formed a wall behind the moat. If there hadn’t been a barrier, they would have thrown themselves at Knut. At first Knut felt pity for the poor humans who couldn’t join in his games because they were trapped on the other side. In his body, he felt their burning desire to touch the little bear and hold him in their arms.

It’s tempting to say the novel’s bears are metaphors for any outsider’s existential crises, but I’m not going to say that. Tawada’s bears are much more than metaphors, or anthropomorphised animals; they are embodiments of what it means to be a human being, full of wonder and curiosity, and desires limited by circumstances. I don’t read many books more than once but Memoirs of a Polar Bear will be one of them.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, WW Norton & Company.

Todd Shimoda is the author of Why Ghosts Appear, Subduction, Oh! A Mystery of ‘Mono No Aware’, The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji.

This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.

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