Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada – book review by Fred Patten

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

51yC2DEIBlL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada. Translated by Susan Bernofsky.
NYC, New Directions Books, November 2016, trade paperback $16.95 (252 pages), Kindle $9.58.

This was originally published as Etüden im Schnee, konkursbuch Verlag, March 2014. It isn’t published as furry fiction but as mainstream literature, so it is probably classed as fabulism or literary fantasy.

“I’d taken part in a congress that day [in Kiev], and afterward all the participants were invited to a sumptuous feast. When I returned to my hotel room at night, I had a bear’s thirst and greedily drank water straight from the tap. But the taste of oily anchovies refused to leave me. In the mirror I saw my red-smeared lips, a masterpiece of the beets. I’d never eaten root vegetables voluntarily, but when a beet came swimming in my bowl of borsht, I immediately wanted to kiss it. Bobbing amid the lovely dots of fat floating on top – which at once awoke my appetite for meat – the beet was irresistible.

The springs creak beneath my bearish weight as I sit on the hotel sofa thinking how uninteresting the conference had been yet again, but that it had unexpectedly led me back to my childhood. The topic of today’s discussion was The Significance of Bicycles in the National Economy.” (pgs. 4-5)

a Polar Bear” is actually three polar bears over three generations; a grandmother, mother, and son. The first, never named, is captured and brought as a cub to Moscow, where she is trained to perform in a circus, apparently around the 1960s. Her part is “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory”.

“For a long time, I didn’t know anything: I sat in my cage, always onstage, never an audience member. If I’d gone out now and then, I would’ve seen the stove that had been installed under the cage. I’d have seen Ivan putting firewood in the stove and lighting it. I might have even seen the gramophone with its giant black tulip on a stand behind the cage. When the floor of the cage got hot, Ivan would drop the needle on the record. As a fanfare split the air like a fist shattering a pane of glass, the palms of my paw-hands felt a searing pain. I stood up, and the pain disappeared.” (p. 11)

“After hours and days spent vigorously shaking my hips, my knees were in such bad shape that I was incapable of performing acrobatics of any sort. I was unfit for circus work. Ordinarily they would have just shot me, but I got lucky and was assigned a desk job in the circus’s administrative offices.

I never dreamed I had a gift for office work. But the personnel office left no talents of their workers unexplored if they could be employed and exploited to the circus’s advantage. I would even go so far as to say I was a born office manager. My nose could sniff out the difference between important and unimportant bills.” (p. 14)

After learning record-keeping, she begins to write her autobiography in her spare time as a hobby, until she learns that a human supervisor has been taking it and getting it published – without telling her or sharing the money. She discovers how to manage her own sales, and finds that her autobiography is a best-seller. She’s become an intellectual, and is invited to literary conferences. But a famous intellectual polar bear as a member of the intelligentsia becomes an embarrassment to the Soviet establishment. She is encouraged to move to Siberia (the climate will be so much more comfortable to polar bears), and finally to emigrate to West Germany; then to Canada where she finds too much freedom. She marries a polar bear from Denmark, has a daughter, and they re-emigrate to East Germany.

Part II, “The Kiss of Death”, is about the first bear’s daughter Tosca; but the narrator is a human in the East German national circus (later identified as Barbara). When the Soviet Union gives the circus nine polar bears – nine bears arrogant with Soviet labor demands, who go on strike – she incidentally learns about Tosca.

“Though she’d graduated from ballet school with top honors, Tosca hadn’t been able to land a role in a single production, not even in Swan Lake, as everyone had expected. And so she was regularly performing for children. Her mother was a celebrity who’d emigrated from Canada to Socialist East Germany and had written an autobiography. The book was long out of print, and no one had ever read it, so it was really more of a legend.” (p. 84)

She brings in Tosca hoping that she will be an encouraging role model for the Soviet bears. When she isn’t – “When her [Tosca’s] vehicle passed the quarters of the nine polar bears, they immediately began to heckle her: “Strike-breaker! Scab!” (p. 88) – she works with Tosca to develop a solo act. Eventually she writes

Tosca’s biography, rather than Tosca writing an autobiography.

“‘I’ve started writing your biography,’ I said to Tosca, who sneezed in surprise.

‘Are you cold?’

‘Very funny. I have a pollen allergy. Here at the North Pole, no flowers bloom, but there’s still pollen in the air, and I can’t stop sneezing. It’s uncanny, having pollen without flowers.’

‘I’ve written up to the period just after your birth. Your eyes weren’t open yet. Your mother and you weren’t alone, there was a third shadow.’

‘My father wanted to live with us, but my mother couldn’t stand him. She used to snarl whenever he came within sight of us.’

‘Isn’t that normal for a mother bear?’” (p. 124)

Eventually Barbara and Tosca become so close that Tosca takes over writing the narrative. After the reunification of Germany, they travel around the world as a duo.

“During the performance, I took great pleasure in watching the children in the audience. They stared at us open-mouthed and wide-eyed. In Japan we received a letter that said: ‘it must be exhausting to put on a bear costume in this heat and perform onstage. Please accept my heartfelt thanks for your wonderful performance! Our children were ecstatic.’ Apparently there were audience members who were incapable of believing I was really a bear. How fortunate that no one came into the dressing room and asked me to take off my bearskin.” (p. 160)

When they retire, Tosca is sold to the Berlin Zoo where Knut is born.   Part III, “Memories of the North Pole”, is Knut’s story.

Knut’s story is a blend of fiction and fact. Knut was born in the Berlin Zoo, and is probably the most famous polar bear in history. There were Knut T-shirts and plush dolls. Knut’s keeper Matthias became almost as popular, and when he unexpectedly died, Knut was distraught by his disappearance.

“And this news too reached me in the form of a newspaper article: Matthias is dead. He died of a heart attack. At first I didn’t understand what that meant. I read the through several times. Suddenly a thought struck me like a stone: I can never see him again.” (p. 229)

Although the protagonists are individual polar bears in a human world, there are others in supporting roles: the nine Soviet circus bears, the first bear’s Danish husband Christian, and others. The first bear is briefly confused by human anthropomorphic fiction.

“The protagonist was a mouse. Her form of gainful employment: singing. Her audience: the people. On the vocabulary list I found the word Volk, which corresponded to the Russian narod.


As long as the mouse went on singing, the Volk gave her its full attention. No one aped her, no one giggled, no one disrupted her concerts by making mouse noises. This is just how my own audience behaved, too, and my heart leaped as I remembered the circus.” (p. 49)

The bear is disappointed when she learns the story of the mouse singer is only fiction; a literary conceit.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear (cover by Alyssa Cartwright) has a melancholy, ethereal ending that fits the book nicely. The real Knut died. The book’s Knut goes on. In fiction, he can live forever.

Fred Patten

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