Translated by Susan Bernofsky. New York, NY: New Directions Press, 2016. 288 pages. $16.95.
Everyone feels constrained at times—by a dead-end job, by family members who expect certain behavior—but imagine how a circus animal must feel, such as the matriarch of three generations of polar bears that Yoko Tawada writes about in her ingenious new novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear. Tawada, a Japanese author who writes in German, has examined cultural estrangement in stories like The Bridegroom Was a Dog. In the three long chapters of this new work—the witty translation is by Susan Bernofsky—Tawada has invented an allegory on the effects humans have on one another and on the earth.
The protagonist of the first story is the clan’s unnamed matriarch. Born in the Soviet Union, she has no memory of her mother, she is raised by a man named Ivan and becomes a bicycle-riding Moscow circus attraction, pedaling nowhere for the delight of onlookers. After her retirement as a performer, she takes on an administrative role at the circus, for which she attends conferences and formal dinners where, in a phrase typical of the novel’s wit, she “ate heavy borscht, shoveled glistening black caviar into my mouth and accumulated a fortune in body fat.”
She’s also a writer, a calling that brings confinement of a different sort. At the urging of her building superintendent—this is a novel in which there’s nothing unusual about a polar bear communicating with humans—she writes her autobiography. She sends pages to a literary editor, a seal known as Sea Lion, an unscrupulous sort who publishes her early pages in his magazine without telling her and slaps on the not-wholly-accurate title “Thunderous Applause for My Tears.” The memoir becomes a surprise bestseller. Soon, an organization known as KAOS, Keeping Authors Out of Siberia, arranges for her to escape the Soviet Union—she suffers repercussions for her political writings—and relocate in Germany, where a man named Wolfgang sets her up in an apartment and encourages her to complete her manuscript.
In this first story, Tawada introduces the themes of imprisonment and repression. During her circus days, the matriarch learned that certain actions earned praise and a sugar cube, whereas others prompted the lash—a clear parallel to life under totalitarian rule. Upon reading the second installment of her memoirs, Sea Lion criticizes her for including political criticism: “Your experiences are important, not your thoughts.” No matter what she does, the matriarch feels boxed in: “Locked in my invisible cage, I am living proof of human rights violations, and I’m not even human.”
After neo-Nazis attack her for being from Moscow, the matriarch moves to Canada, where her daughter, Tosca, is born. In the book’s middle story, set during and after German reunification, Tosca, now a ballet dancer in East Germany, is hired by the national circus after the director says he wants to “put together an unforgettable show” before the Kremlin’s next visit. Unlike the first and third chapters, this one is told from a human’s perspective, that of Barbara, a ringmaster married to a nightmare-prone husband.
The director of the circus hires Tosca after the nine polar bears already on staff form a union and go on strike—one of the novel’s many sly references to politics and a clever example of Tawada’s larger goal of highlighting not only forms of repression, but also the ways in which one might try to counteract them. As they work together on their act, Barbara discovers that when she’s asleep, she can communicate with Tosca. This discovery leads to emotionally wrenching scenes, as when Barbara, whose mother disapproved of her joining the circus—Tawada frequently refers to fraught relationships between mothers and daughters and the ways in which disagreements can be as confining as a bird’s polygonal enclosure—tells the bear that she doesn’t like to think about her childhood, a conversation that abruptly ends when she wakes screaming.
But Tosca is more than a sounding board for Barbara. Their relationship also has a sexual component. Barbara strokes Tosca’s fur and weeps into her lap. They touch lips when Barbara falls during a dance rehearsal. Tawada’s point is obvious: theirs is an attraction that some in society would frown upon, but definitions of societal norms are another form of repression.
Tosca’s chapter is the book’s weakest, as Tawada gets bogged down with stories from Barbara’s past—her fear of insects, the aerial acrobat who taught her the tango. Much stronger is the final chapter, which focuses on Knut, Tosca’s estranged son, who was born shortly after his mother was sold to the Berlin Zoo. Tosca rejected Knut after his birth, so an environmental activist named Matthias raises him. Matthias and a doctor named Christian keep journalists apprised of Knut’s “development.” The goals are to prove that humans can raise polar bears in order for the world to think seriously about climate change.
Tawada uses Knut’s story to offer trenchant analyses of capitalism and the environment. The zoo’s gift shop exploits every Knut-related merchandising opportunity: key chains, T-shirts, DVDs, even a teapot with a Knut-shaped handle. In an entertaining but obvious passage, Knut plays with every ball Matthias tosses to him except for one “the color of a gold coin,” a gift from a corporate sponsor. On the ball is the slogan, “Globalization, Innovation, Communication.”
The book’s most devastating commentary, however, is the notion that there are proper classifications for each of us, and that divergence from these categories is unacceptable. Late in Knut’s story, the zoo’s Malayan sun bear criticizes him for not showing more concern for global warming’s effect on his homeland. Then another zoo denizen, the Canadian wolf, says that Knut should be in the North Pole with his mother, not in Germany with a human father. Neither the wolf nor the sun bear, both far from their native countries, sees the irony in their comments.
Of all the cages Tawada writes about, conformity is arguably the most restrictive. When Matthias leaves under mysterious circumstances, his replacement tells Knut, “Human beings hate everything that is unnatural. They think that bears must remain bears.” The wisdom of Memoirs of a Polar Bear comes from its recognition that, no matter what the Canadian wolves of the world believe, your “family” is not necessarily the clan you’re born into but the people who love you.
If we take this argument to its logical conclusion, then the same is true for all the other restrictions Tawada writes about in this profound work: Each of us belongs where he or she chooses, not in a Mondrian grid of pre-defined compartments. Heterodoxy has its perils, but it has its benefits, too. Tucked within Memoirs’s often-bleak view of human nature is a cautiously hopeful message. As long as each of us has compassion and the capacity for growth and creative thinking, then, in more ways than one, there’s hope for the planet.