Reviews / June 2017 (Issue 36: Writing Japan)

True North is Everywhere: Yoko Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear

by Penny Yeung


Yoko Tawada (author), Susan Bernofsky (translator), Memoirs of a Polar Bear, New Directions Books, 2016. 252 pgs.


Strangely wonderful it is, stepping into the fantastical story-scape of Yoko Tawada's latest novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear. Tawada, who was born in Japan but moved to Germany as a young adult in 1982, takes inspiration from the real-life story of Knut, an orphaned polar bear born in the Berlin Zoo, and gives it a fabulist twist. The result is a novel in the form of a series of memoirs, at turns wry, wistful and surprising, told in the voices of three generations of polar bears. With this cast of unusual protagonists rubbing shoulders with human characters but viewing the world through decidedly ursine eyes, Memoirs offers an uncanny inroad into many of today's cultural debates. Although at first blush the novel is neither set in Japan nor deals with Japanese realities, readers may find in Memoirs an interesting oblique counterpoint for considering what "Japan" is when contemplated from a distance in time and space.

The novel tells the stories of three polar bears and how the decisions of their forebears take them on migratory journeys across the globe. In the process, they also take up varying relations to language and writing. The plot unfolds in three parts. Time-wise, it begins during the Cold War and takes us up to present-day Germany. In the opening chapter, "The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory," we meet the polar bear matriarch (we are not given her name), a retired circus artiste in the Soviet Union and now regular participant on the circuit of international conferences. She speaks perfect Russian (albeit a bearish type), converses with humans on an equal footing and has lately begun teaching herself to write. Her novice attempts are recognised by the editor of a literary journal, who, unbeknownst to the bear, publishes her memoir-in-progress in instalments. The matriarch's literary debut meets with wild success, propelling her to stardom, but trouble quickly ensues. Enthusiastic reception of her memoir in translation leads the fledgling author to come under suspicion of engaging in dissident activity against the state. Suddenly, the threat of exile looms, but thanks to a timely intervention, the bear is spirited out to West Germany. In her adopted country, the bear savours newfound freedoms and discovers German literature, which sparks a writerly crisis about what language she should continue to write in—Russian or German. Here, the novel's conceit yields delightful metaphors for writing, which alone are worth reading for:

Writing isn't particularly different from hibernation. Perhaps I made a drowsy impression, but in the bear's den of my brain, I was giving birth to my own childhood and secretly attending to its upbringing.

By the time the first section wraps up, the matriarch has traversed the ocean to North America in response to the beckoning of the Arctic cold, fallen in love, given birth to a child (Tosca), and returned to Europe with her new family, this time to East Germany.

Part two, "The Kiss of Death," tells of a heart-warming friendship between animal and human, specifically that of Tosca and her circus trainer, Barbara. The national circus where Barbara works has been gifted nine polar bears by the Russian government and is scrambling to put together an act fitting for this diplomatic gesture—it can't be anything banal, but must also avoid dubious symbolism, so as not to be misconstrued as social or political critique. As opening day approaches and the Russian bears go on strike, the idea occurs to Barbara to perform with Tosca, who had until then been languishing in obscurity in a children's theatre. Unlike her mother, Tosca is unable to speak, yet she and Barbara manage to communicate across this breach—and in a sense, save each other.

If one were to read the novel for its political commentary, it would seem most present in this section, as the characters expose the antics and absurdities that paranoid brands of nationalism fall prey to. But the critique is never heavy-handed and arises instead in moments of subtle irony. After all, Memoirs wryly suggests, it may be the reader seeing things where there is nothing to see.

As the narrative progresses, a sense of claustrophobia grows and the spatial imagery contracts. Part three, "Memories of the North Pole," opens in a Berlin zoo enclosure. Under the watchful eye of human keeper Matthias, baby polar bear Knut tumbles through muddles and mishaps as he learns his way in the world. Communication seems to have broken down even further, and Knut is increasingly isolated from the surrounding human society. The ending is somewhat ambiguous, although the final image carries a note of fatality and would not be inconsistent with what we know of Knut's fate in real life.

The age-old debate of nature versus nurture, which runs through much of the novel, receives more pronounced treatment in this last third. The preponderance of male characters, both animal and human, suggests that gender could be a productive lens through which to examine plot development. A brief foray into issues of race reiterates the novel's embeddedness within a wide range of contemporary concerns. All the while, Tawada manages to keep things fresh with her imaginative premise and clever use of narrative perspectives—elements that are rendered effectively in the English translation by Susan Bernofsky.

With recurring themes of mobility and agency, language and belonging, and given what we know of the author's own biography, Memoirs lends itself to being read as an allegory of the contemporary diasporic experience. It is clear that a preoccupation with discourses of ethnicity in diasporic and national contexts informs the narrative. When called a "minority," the polar bear matriarch reacts with puzzlement—the term means nothing to her. In another episode, a bookstore salesman in West Germany, commenting on books written by animal authors, obviously feels the need to reassure the bear: "What I mean is that this literature is valuable as literature, not because it was written from a minority perspective." It doesn't require much of a stretch of the imagination to see how both instances touch on issues that continue to confront "ethnic" writers, and especially exophonic writers (Tawada publishes in both German and Japanese), as their work is circulated and received on a world literary stage.

By decentring the human, however, Tawada deftly sidesteps a kind of reading that might try to designate her work as representational of an ethnic or cultural experience. The figure of the polar bear compels us to reflect on otherness differently and offers up the possibility of thinking about the diasporic individual in—dare I say this?—more universal terms. It doesn't forestall readers from pursuing a biographical reading of the novel (it is titled a memoir, after all), but it does ask us to seek new parameters. For one, what do we make of the manifest absence of "Japaneseness" in the story? Are we confined to locating Japaneseness only in the instances, few and far between, when quintessential cultural references make an appearance? The fact that Tawada first wrote the novel in Japanese and translated it herself into the German calls our attention to the way her work consciously trafficks between at least two national, linguistic and cultural traditions—and three, if we also include the novel's obvious interest in Russian themes. How then do we parse Russianness, and even, bearishness? The novel decidedly unsettles these labels, refusing designations of homogeneity.

Through its seamless blend of fantasy and the real, Tawada's work invites a series of broader questions: amid the ruptures of migration and failures in biological kinship, to where does one trace one's roots? To what forms of belongings does one grant legitimacy and authenticity? Or is estrangement an irreparable condition, like how their "native" land the North Pole and "mother" tongue North Polish are only phantasms for the polar bears, ever receding into an irretrievable past? Memoirs of a Polar Bear offers much to ponder on, as questions of origin, history and belonging continue to be debated in our cultural moment.

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