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from the December 2016 issue

“Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada

Reviewed by Thomas Michael Duncan

In reading Yoko Tawada’s latest novel, it is impossible not to consider the vast ways in which the world a person inhabits differs from the world of his or her ancestors. Many features remain the same, of course, and there is typically an overlap in time and space, but even in the short span of a generation or two, so much changes.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear follows three generations of polar bears, and with each generation, not only are there changes in culture, politics, and technology, but the degree of anthropomorphization sharply decreases. In the first chapter, an unnamed polar bear living in a Cold-War era Soviet Union openly and clearly communicates with human beings through both speech and writing. No indication is ever given to suggest that these abilities are out of the ordinary for a polar bear. In the following chapter, Tosca, the first bear’s daughter, lacks the ability to read or write. Tosca, like her mother, is a circus performer, and one of her handlers suggests teaching her to spell words as a stage trick, but the idea is shot down and deemed impossible. Still, she finds a way to communicate with at least one human, but she is only able to do so through a strange sort of thought-transmission in a dreamlike state. And in the final chapter, Knut, Tosca’s son, is able to speak to other animals but is completely incapable of communicating with humans except through physical gestures. In a novel largely concerned with self-identity and isolation, these changes serve to demonstrate the disconnect between all individuals, even ancestors and their descendants.

A novel with non-human protagonists can be a lot to ask of readers, but there is certainly a reward to this risk. In this instance, it allows Tawada to examine the human race from an outside perspective. Many things that humans take for granted as normal or commonplace can be presented as strange or bizarre though the eyes of a polar bear. As Tawada’s first bear says:

The animal world is not without its culinary oddities . . . But this is nothing compared to the curiosities beloved by human beings: the greases they smear on their cheeks, the thick liquid they color their claws with, tiny little sticks they probably use to pick their noses, bags for temporarily storing things that will later be thrown away, the paper they use to wipe their bottoms, the round plates made of paper for throwing away, and the notebooks for children with a panda bear on the front cover.

Although these bears traverse human society to varying degrees, they are never truly accepted into the fold, and their otherness is always front and center. Cruel children use what might be considered racial slurs, like “snow child” and “snout face.” Even other animals are offended when Knut admits to never having been to the North Pole. This specific moment will certainly be uncomfortably familiar to people of color living in the United States, who are all too often asked to explain where they are from, as if their skin color alone casts them as outsiders.

Halfway through Knut’s chapter, he meets the zoo’s sun bear and engages in a conversation. The sun bear laughs at Knut for speaking in the third person, which both angers Knut and forces him to reexamine his sense of self: 

Knut was Knut. Why shouldn’t Knut say Knut?. . . What a strange phenomenon!

Wanting to avoid ridicule, the polar bear adopts the use of a first-person pronoun, and at this moment, the narrative changes from third-person narration to Knut’s first-person perspective. Or, rather, it becomes apparent that Knut has been the narrator of the chapter all along, only referring to himself in the third person. Here readers are forced to reconsider the preceding pages in a new light, with the understanding that Knut, not some invisible third party, has been the author of his own story. The other characters––Knut’s caretakers and fellow zoo animals––have been presented only as Knut perceives them. This is another example of the way Tawada takes risks in her writing. It’s possible that this perspective change could confuse or frustrate readers instead of enhancing their understanding of the story, yet the risk pays off, and Tawada allows readers to share a sense of Knut’s first-person epiphany by saddling them with a sudden realization of their own.

Despite the serious themes throughout the story, Tawada’s prose is never plain or rigid. Every scene is fully adorned with vivid imagery. Perhaps the most captivating examples are the descriptions of the stage tricks that the animals perform:

My spine stretches tall, my chest broadens, I tuck my chin slightly before the living wall of ice, unafraid. It isn’t a battle. And in truth this ice wall is really just warm snowy fur. I gaze up and discover two black pearl eyes and a moist nose. Quickly I place the sugar cube on my tongue and stick it out as far, and as high as I can. The polar bear bends down toward me slowly. She bends first at the hip, then at the neck, balancing on her hind legs. She exhales forcefully, and the smell of snow streams powerfully from her throat. Then her tongue swiftly and skillfully snatches the sugar from my mouth. Has one mouth touched the private interior of the other or not?

The novel’s eldest bear describes writing as a “dangerous acrobatic stunt.” In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada executes this stunt with the effortless grace of a seasoned circus performer.  

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