:: Article

Writing Between Species: Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear

By Dominic O’Key.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear review

Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Press, 2017)

It is easy to miss the point of animal-narrated prose. This is one of the conclusions that Walter Benjamin reached in 1934 when he intervened in what he saw as a spate of unconvincing readings of Franz Kafka’s fictions. Such unconvincing interpretations had a tendency, Benjamin argued, to see the content of Kafka’s texts as mere allegories for psychological, metaphysical and theological dramas about humanity. This was particularly so for those short stories—such as The Metamorphosis and A Report to an Academy—in which Kafka made strategic use of nonhuman narration. For Benjamin, the point of Kafka’s beetle- and ape-narrated storytelling was to be found not in abstracting these animals into metaphors for the human, but rather in seeing them for what they actually are, that is, as animals themselves. Gregor Samsa, then, is not a crude allegory for Oedipal familial struggles but is instead an actual person who registers the shock of becoming an insect. (This is what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari later argue in their own intervention into Kafka scholarship.) And Red Peter is not a metaphor for existential worries over what it means to be human, but is, quite literally, an ape that has been kidnapped, shipped to Europe, and has somehow along the way acquired the German language. In sum, Kafka’s animals should never be reduced to being symbols of humanity’s alienation. Rather, any readings of Kafka’s animals must be attentive to the particularities of each and every animal narrator’s story, voice, history, anxieties and dreams. This is where the politics of Kafka’s works are to be found. 

Benjamin’s method of literal reading is, to my mind, precisely what we should bring to Yoko Tawada’s playful and fascinating new novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is not just because the Japanese-German author is deeply indebted to Kafka, it is also because Memoirs of a Polar Bear, translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by Portobello Press earlier this year, is constructed out of three intergenerational polar bear-narrated fictions: the first section revolves around an unnamed ex-circus performer turned bestselling memoirist who moves from Cold War Moscow to West Berlin; the second concerns her daughter, Tosca, a performer in the GDR state circus who becomes famous for “The Kiss of Death”, an act in which she stands on two feet and kisses her trainer; and the third and final part centres on Knut, Tosca’s son and hence grandson to the novel’s nameless opening narrator, whose narrative voice gives fictional expression to the experiences of a real-life polar bear that many readers might already be vaguely familiar with, that is, the life of Knut, global celebrity of the Berlin Zoo, the poster-boy of German state-led environmental policy.

So if there are in fact three bears here, three voices, three personalities on offer, then why the title Memoirs of a Polar Bear? One reason for is that, to put it simply, only one of the polar bears is a writer; only the grandmother of the novel’s first section actually writes her own memoirs. The grandmother tells us that she was a performer in the Moscow state circus until the fateful day when her knees gave way: “Ordinarily they would have just shot me, but I got lucky and was assigned a desk job in the circus’s administrative offices.” By day the grandmother does clerical work and attends conferences in Kiev, but by night she swigs away at a vodka bottle and scribbles away at what eventually becomes her memoir: “I want to write to call back to mind something I can no longer remember.” Writing, then, becomes the grandmother’s chosen method of engaging with her traumatic dislocation from the North Pole and her entrance into human society. The problem arises when her publisher friend (a man called Sea Lion, but not actually a sea lion) serialises her writing without her knowledge. The grandmother’s memoir becomes a bestseller under the title “Thunderous Applause for my Tears”, a title which she describes as utterly inane: “Don’t just randomly title the thing on a whim! At least give some thought to the meaning of the words. Tears belong to human sentimentality. To me, ice and snow are everything. You can’t just thaw them out and turn them into tears.”

Once her memoir is thoroughly absorbed into the culture industry—creating a readership, translated from Russian into German, and “euphorically reviewed in a German newspaper of no small importance”—the grandmother’s autobiographical writing is recognised for its unique portrayal of the “ethnic minority” experience. The irony that Tawada is playing with here is, of course, the fact that “ethnicity” is by no means a concept that is associated with nonhuman lives. Tawada extends the irony even further when the grandmother moves to West Berlin, a consequence of her German publisher’s strategy of positioning her work as a deliberate counter-narrative to the human rights violations of the Soviet Union. The layers of irony are not lost on the grandmother, who reflects: “I am living proof of human rights violations, and I’m not even human.” The grandmother’s story therefore foregrounds two ideas: on the one hand, the cynicism of literary reception and translation within the Cold War, in which dissident writers were routinely taken up by the West as bastions of political freedom. At one particularly telling moment, for instance, the grandmother’s new publisher reads a sentence of hers and exclaims “Weltliteratur!” On the other hand, the grandmother’s story also asks its readers to think imaginatively about the particular strangeness of a polar bear’s experience of life inside human society, and the ways this strangeness is registered in the polar bear’s own idiosyncratic relationship with writing.

Only the Grandmother, then, is a memoirist in the specific sense of the word. Tawada’s second and third sections rely less on a self-conscious autobiographical style and more on certain narrative tricks that slowly reveal to her readers that each bear is indeed the narrator of the stories. In Memoirs of a Polar Bear’s second section, perhaps the novel’s most complex staging of interspecies commingling, Tosca’s story is unfolded via a series of narrative twists and turns that test the reader’s attention: at first, the reader assumes that it is Tosca’s trainer, Barbara, who is narrating her experiences of working with Tosca in the circus, but we later find out that it is in fact Tosca using Barbara’s first-person voice. This is made even more complicated when Tosca, still within Barbara’s first-person narrative voice, decides to write a memoir of herself: “I’ll write for you. I’ll write your life story so you can escape from your mother’s autobiography.” Thus Tawada’s second section give us an intimate portrayal of Tosca narrating Barbara narrating Tosca—that is, a polar bear narrating their human trainer’s attempt to imagine the inner-life of the circus animal they work with.

In the final section, the reader has to reach half-way through before realising that the apparent omniscient narrator of the story is, in fact, a third polar bear, Knut. This moment of realisation is very cleverly set up by Tawada through a perspectival switch from third to first person narration. But what sparks this switch is not Knut’s own omniscience. That is, Knut does not reveal or admit to the reader that he has been speaking all along. Rather, because Tawada’s story closely follows Knut’s day-by-day growth from a fragile baby bear to a public-facing and inquisitive toddler, the story’s narration is coterminous with Knut learning about how to narrate. Thus the shift to a first person “I” comes about only because Knut encounters a Malayan sun bear who finds it laughable that he would use the third person at all: “You call yourself Knut? A bear speaking in the third person? I haven’t heard anything that hilarious in a long time. Are you still a baby?” Knut adopts the first person thereafter: “Clearing my throat, I spoke the word ‘I’ for the first time: ‘I am Knut, in case you don’t know.’”

Another reason for the title Memoirs of a Polar Bear is that Tawada’s original German formulation remains rather enigmatic to English readers: Etüden im Schnee, which translates as Études in the Snow, with “étude” signalling a difficult musical exercise that, when practiced enough times, sharpens the musician’s abilities. Nevertheless this German title helps illuminate two crucial aspects of Tawada’s work which are not suggested by the English title. One is the experimental nature of the text; Tawada has set herself the hard task of composing three literary études, or, three acrobatic exercises in performing polar bear identities. The other is the importance of “snow” as a word, a concept, a metaphor. Tawada has spoken at length about how her creativity is often kickstarted by the particularly of a single word. In an interview with World Literature Today Tawada writes that “A single word can inspire me. When this happens, I want to create a whole text out of that one word, which seems to contain the entire microcosm. That is my dream, and it is how I start writing.” Memoirs of a Polar Bear, then, experiments with the associations and affinities of the word snow, and Tawada finds her distinctive voice through imagining the individual histories of three distinct but genetically related polar bear experiences.

Yoko Tawada

Indeed each of the novel’s stories is either set in motion by or revolves around the word “snow”. But this is not actual snow. Rather, for much of the novel snow is always just a memory of a lost world. For the grandmother, snow is accessed only through her flights into autobiographical writing, but even then she is confronted with a different kind of snow: “A snowfield blanketed my field of vision […] The white surface before me wasn’t a snowfield, it was a blank manuscript page.” Here the anxieties of writing are prompted by the urge to narrate memory. Something similar happens with Tosca when, in the grand finale of her circus act, she licks sugar cubes from Barbara’s mouth: “I see the sugar gleaming in the cave of her mouth. Its colour reminds me of snow, and I am filled with longing for the far-off North Pole.” For Tosca, snow is fundamentally associated with her ancestors’ traumatic displacement from their natural habitats. 

And Tawada ends the book with Knut’s vibrant description of falling snow:

It’s snowing! How wondrous it was, the way this brightness in motion instantly appeared dark. Snowing! The flakes spin as they fall. Snowing! One more flake. Snow! And another. Snow! There was no end to it. I couldn’t stop looking up. To either side of me, the little white leaves flew past like autumn leaves in a storm. The snow was a spaceship, it lifted me up and flew off as fast as it could in the direction of the skull—the cranium of our earth.

Despite the playful energy of this closing passage, it is hard not to again feel a deep sadness. Sadness not just for the textual Knut, whose life is constrained and flattened by his enclosure in the Berlin zoo, by his celebrity commitments to photoshoots and press conferences, and by the death of his closest Homo sapien friends, but also for the real-life Knut who died soon after Tawada had finished writing the manuscript. Snow, then, is more than just a keyword. It is an organising metaphor that lets Tawada’s text register—and indeed “bear” witness to—the ways in which these three polar bears are each forcefully integrated into human societies.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear’s concentration on the word snow also speaks to Tawada’s longstanding concern with language itself. Having moved from Tokyo to Hamburg in 1982, where she began her writing career five years later, Tawada has expressed a preference for writing between languages, that is, between her first language, Japanese, and her second language of German. Tawada is known for self-translating her own works from one of these languages into the other, and this is no different for Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which began life in Japanese before Tawada transformed it into German. Tawada has also meditated on what it means to be an exophonic German-minority author (which we cannot help but feel is being ironised in the way that the grandmother’s memoirs are marketed as “ethnic minority literature”), as well as the way in which language itself is made uncanny if we come at it from an angle. For Tawada, then, language is “not natural for us, but rather artificial and magical.” This is particularly so for the bilingual author’s given second language, which Tawada thinks of as being considerably harder to bend and fold, harder to put to use. Nonetheless to wrestle with this linguistic resistance is not disabling but rather enabling; it opens up the space for her fiction to begin.

Although still relatively unknown on this side of the anglophone world (Memoirs of a Polar Bear is Tawada’s fifth book to be published in the US, but only her first in the UK), Tawada has three decades of experience publishing bilingual work across various genres and forms: plays, poems, novels, short stories, translations, and literary criticism. Tawada has received some of Germany’s and Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, including the Kleist Prize, the Goethe Medal, and the Akutagawa Prize. (The correlation between bilingualism, migration and literary prizes is no coincidence, as Jennifer Quist has recently shown in the New Left Review.) As Leslie Adelson writes, Tawada’s work is well known for its attention to cultural globalisation, surrealist aesthetics, irony, and translation. We might add to this what Tawada’s translator calls the author’s preoccupation with cultural border crossings, as well as keen sense of politics and the nation state, especially so in that Tawada’s work frequently sets itself in the midst of the transition from the Iron Curtain to German reunification. Memoirs of a Polar Bear upholds a number of these broad themes, focusing throughout on the different expectations placed on polar bears living under sometimes competing and other times transitioning economic and political regimes, such as the GDR (the secret police investigate Tosca’s circus, for example) and post-unification Berlin up to the 2008 financial crash. Through the eyes of her three polar bear narrators, all of these political regimes are represented as grotesque and incomprehensible. In one exemplary moment, Knut is perplexed by the stuffed animals, keychains, coffee mugs and t-shirts that are reproduced in his image: “Thinking about the Knut merchandise […] caused my organ of cognition to overheat until it hurt. I covered my head with my arms and tried to breathe quietly. Behind the fence I heard someone say: ‘Look! The financial crisis has gotten so desperate that it’s even giving Knut a headache.’” In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, then, the post-Soviet “thaw” is definitely not good news for a snow-seeking polar bear.

There is much more to be said about this novel: about polar bears taking to the picket line, shouting “Scab!” at their strike-breaking comrades; about the ways in which Tawada associates the metaphors of the post-Soviet thaw and the global warming of the planet; about the stylistic and tonal shifts that animate each of the book’s three polar bear narrators; and, above all, about the novel’s generic oscillation between realism and the fantastic, what might best be described as—using Michael Löwy’s term—irrealism. Indeed the brilliance of Tawada’s work is located in the ways in which she persistently refuses to collapse the tension between the real and the fantastic. Tawada’s readers are forever expected to suspend their disbelief and to approach these stories literally. To do so is to encounter a sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes alienating, but always deeply intimate portrayal of the complexities of human-polar bear relations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.


Dominic O’Key

Dominic O’Key is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Leeds.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 16th, 2017.