Narration Between Species: Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Reviewed by Jordan A. Y. Smith

Tawada-Memoirs of a Polar Bear[Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar is one of those novels that makes one loathe to reveal not only the ending but the beginning, so I will open with my clichéd but earnest recommendation that you trust me—and Tawada’s stellar and well-earned reputation—go read the novel, then continue reading this review, which contains massive spoilers in discussing a novel that makes full use of the element of surprise…]

Tawada’s unpredictable, calmly absorbing novel stands out even amidst the double national traditions of Japanese and German literature from which Tawada hails. A series of “memoirs” narrated by interlinked generations of polar bears and their homo sapien friends—trainers, keepers, veterinarians, surrogate parents—the novel merits at least an attempt at naming a new genre. But such a complex hybrid would have to be labeled something like zooanthroposynthesic quasi-memoir—a thoroughly forged narrative consciousness between the human and the animal mind that blends fact and fiction on many levels.

The volume might invite easy comparison with Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but this is a different experience altogether. The text does have themes in common with Kafka’s masterpiece, for example the deleterious effects of mind-numbing labor on the modern worker. Yet Tawada’s novel defies simple interpretation: we cannot discuss “dehumanizing” effects on a polar bear who never was human. This simple difference distinguishes Tawada’s novel as one keenly aware of animal rights, marked by research into the intellectual and emotional complex of animals. In this mode, animals are always already on par with humans, treated narratively as having characteristics such as a complex, humanlike consciousness. Humans fuse with animal consciousness through dreams, while the human soul enters the animal through language-infused kisses.

The novel’s style blends poetry with prose, dream with narrative reality, and narrative reality with our shared reality. En media res beginning gives the impression of reading abstract poetry, reminding of Tawada’s perhaps less known but equally important status as a cutting-edge poet. But a few paragraphs in, a narrative unfolds along two strands: a polar bear writing and having her memoir published, and the actual stories that unfold within the memoir itself as a kind of mise en abyme. This repeats with each new “chapter,” each almost a novella unto itself. The result is that each of the three sections forces the reader to seek a narrating subject, and each search blurs the lines between human and animal.

As other reviews have noted (New York Times, 4Columns), though the novel defies the norms of realist fiction, it is thoroughly grounded in factual events surrounding the real polar bear Knut (2007-2011), international star of the Berlin Zoo raised by Thomas Dörflein after being rejected by his mother, Tosca (1986-2015). (In Tawada’s novel, both bears retain their real names, though Thomas becomes Matthias.)

In the context of Japanese literature, the magical realism and use of highly cognizant animals will likely draw comparisons to Haruki Murakami, or even Natsume Soseki’s modern classic, I Am a Cat (1906). However, Tawada’s novel is more in the ilk of Kawakami Hiromi’s award-winning short story, “Kamisama” (“God”; 1998), where a bear moves in next door to the narrator, and they interact almost completely within realistic, even everyday, parameters—taking a walk, encountering other humans, and enjoying a picnic. In Kawakami’s story, the bear can be understood as a metaphor for a foreigner in Japan, but in Tawada’s Memoirs, the bears and certain humans exist equally as exiles wandering both sides of the Iron Curtain from post-WWII to the near present. The human counterparts join the bears in the mobile, liminal space of the circus, “a floating island” from which the inhabitants never depart (159).

The nomadism of the circus becomes a metaphor for political flexibility as well, where the protagonists evade capture by any of the macroeconomic regimes governing with such intense ideological scrutiny during the period covered in the first two thirds of the novel. Government inquiries and surveillance are the norm, and socialist propaganda comes to govern the discourse even of the seemingly apolitical circus—plans for a new performance with animals engaged in everyday activities in a living room becomes a contentious vehicle for bourgeois values. The circus director must be “capable of uttering mortifyingly official sentences with a straight face,” announcing each show with platitudes such as, “The function of the circus is to demonstrate the superiority of Socialism” (155-6). The circus performers distance themselves from political ideologies as nimbly as they evade the typical view of the circus as abusive of animals, one which has led to the closure of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey after 146 years of shows.

In fact, it is the egalitarian relations and visceral closeness of the humans and animals that make the circus such politically resistant space. As Tosca’s trainer, Barbara, muses, “Now and then the thought floated into my vicinity that perhaps [the circus director] was exploiting me, but even if that was true, it didn’t bother me. I developed my own economic theory: All losses immediately turn into gains when you touch a horse” (129). Their relationship even suggests the animals and human performers exist in harmony, delighting in the miracle of shows where they “join together to meet the challenges of day-to-day life without slaughtering each other” (155-6).

If anything, Tawada sets up a spiritual vector through which the animals become the leaders in the relationship. The human trainers are sharply aware of this, and observe with caution, “You have to be prepared to surrender your own intentions the moment you catch a whiff of danger: This is the most important thing to remember when working with beasts of prey. You have to understand that courage alone is of no use” (152). Even in performance—the essence of the spectacle that supposedly crowns the moment of human triumph over physically superior animals—the bears learn “to manipulate the audience’s excitement level” to where it reaches “divine omnipotence” (198). The novel is clear in its indictment of superficial critiques of the circus or of zoos. Indeed, despite its aversion to anthropocentric worldviews, Tawada goes beyond reductive binaries, pointing out that one animal rights activist famously argued that the real-life Knut should be killed, rather than raised by humans and forced to live apart from his kind in ways that render him unfit for survival in the wild.

When the animals regard humans, they do so not critically or antagonistically, but as philosophers, observing them as a curious and complex species. Tawada encapsulates this vector beautifully in the “Kiss of Death” sequence, wherein Tosca and Barbara simulate a kiss by passing a sugar cube directly between them from tongue to tongue. Through repeated performances of this kiss, the human soul enters Tosca: “A human soul turned out to be less romantic than I’d imagined. It was made up primarily of languages—not just ordinary, comprehensible languages, but also many broken shards of language, the shadows of languages, and images that couldn’t turn into words” (161). This deconstruction of assumptions undergirding national languages is a lesson in semiotics worthy of Umberto Eco by way of Gloria Anzaldúa’s politics. The bears reflect on humans categorically, objectively: “Among the mothers of Homo sapiens, there are some who treat their sons like capital” (162).

It’s easy to forget while reading Bernofsky’s fluent, lucid translation that there are two “originals” lurking behind the English text. Tawada, as many readers will be aware, writes in Japanese and German, perhaps between the two languages, producing partial texts in both languages, then translating the rest in either direction, effectively creating two novels which somewhat differ. Bernofsky translated from the German, which Alexandra Primiani references in her excellent review for Music & Literature. I have instead compared the English to the Japanese version, so my comments may be seen as an attempt to triangulate the English with an original that was already bipedal and walking. There are of course the usual differences—phrases evolving, flow and rhythms of sentence length changing as the Lego-like combinatory nature of Japanese grammar passes through German and English—however, I will focus only on a couple of these, one which affects the reading experience and one which highlights the text’s politics.

The German and Japanese titles are closely related, Etüden im Schnee and 雪の練習生 (Yuki-no renshūsei), but the English departs: Memoirs of a Polar Bear. As Bernofsky noted in personal correspondence with me, the English equivalent, Etudes in Snow, would sound “more scientific and/or poetic than the book actually is,” and both she and Tawada were “easily convinced” to change the title, ultimately settling on one that “communicates the book’s playfulness.” Indeed, the playfulness of the polar bears merits an article in itself. Depicted both as inherently fun-loving performers, with a psychic sensibility which they use to gauge and control the responses of crowds of humans, polar bears become an enigmatic combination of genetic memory and divine presence—their history in totemic and Teutonic religious worship mentioned several times. Beyond the clownish performers forced to wear silly tutus, the polar bears here use humor not only for an intrinsic love of play, but in an almost experimental sense, studying human behavior and spirit as they “perform.”

However, as Sasaki Atsushi’s “Afterword” to the Japanese volume points out, part of the mystery inherent in reading the Japanese original—released serially in the weekly Shinchō in the Fall of 2010 as three large installments which became the chapters—was the gradual realization that the memoir was narrated by polar bears writing their own memoirs as they reflected on the process. The English title makes that rather clear from the outset, so we might say that mystery was sacrificed for another kind of playfulness. The chapters are also playfully ironic: “The Grandmother: An Evolutionary Theory” traces no such theory (and the Japanese title is actually “Grandmother’s Retrogression Theory”); “The Kiss of Death” cleverly plays on human’s presumption that the bear will kill if given the chance, though it is the soul-transfer that ultimately will kill the bear; and “Memories of the North Pole” are built on the deconstructed notion of a putative homeland to which the subject has never been.

There are other seemingly small changes, such as the name of the circus trainer Barbara, which is Ursula in the Japanese and German. This is relevant insofar as the name becomes the subject of a joke at just the moment when Ursula/Barbara finds acceptance in the circus community. A clown (finally) asks her name, and upon hearing that it is Ursula, explains to her how fitting a name it is, since in Latin the name contains “ursa,” for bear (130). This name could be kept, along with the joke, since the sentence contains its own explanation (166). Changing it to Barbara allows the double entendre to shift to “bar,” recalling a very American pronunciation, a la Davy Crockett (the theme song to the old series sings of the buckskin pioneer, “killed him a bar when he was only three”). Americanization of texts is certainly a common practice, and I point out this regional inflection only to signal that as much as this is a translation into “English,” it may equally be seen as a translation into American.

The Americanness of the translation is a particularly interesting point given the novel’s lampooning of American society. When the circus comes to the U.S. to perform the “Kiss of Death” act, they find themselves in a dilemma: their main act has been forbidden, ostensibly due to health concerns (the spread of ringworm from bear to humans), though we find that hygiene is a red herring for morality concerns from conservative Christians, who send letters protesting, “Sexual fantasies involving bears are a form of Teutonic barbarism” (158).

Which brings me to a final point about the current relevance of the text: this novel takes on a special valence in the current political climate, where the shadow of the Berlin wall is being resurrected between the U.S. and Mexico, where the Soviet state seems to be retracing its borders, and religion puppeteers politics to influence artistic freedom and migrant mobility. Tawada’s bifurcated cultural homeland, between Germany and Japan, comes through with haunting, blazing currency in the United States and Britain today.

Tawada, Yoko. Memoirs of a Polar Bear. Tr. Susan Bernofsky. New York: New Directions, 2016.


  1. Hester Schell · · Reply

    Okay. You got it. Will read this next! Thanks….

    On Feb 21, 2017 11:43 AM, “Reading in Translation” wrote:

    > lschell posted: “Reviewed by Jordan A. Y. Smith [Tawada’s Memoirs of a > Polar is one of those novels that makes one loathe to reveal not only the > ending but the beginning, so I will open with my cliché but earnest > recommendation that you trust me—and Tawada’s stellar an” >

  2. Enjoyed this book tremendously and passed it on to my sister!
    Full of metaphor, perspective and empathy. The POV is quite interesting.

  3. So glad you enjoyed it, Hester! Tawada’s books are always an adventure, and Bernofsky’s translations always on point!

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