When you imagine a polar bear these days, two images spring to mind. One is the contended and playful bear of Coca-Cola commercials, a bear that dances with penguins and wears a scarf and enjoys an endless supply of glass-bottled soda. The other image is from the real world (or at least the TV series Planet Earth) and it is much sadder. This bear straddles a too-small ice floe that’s bobbing across vast swaths of melted ocean. This bear loses more of his natural habitat every day.
If polar bears could talk, I like to think they’d feel mildly insulted by this binary, and eager to expound upon the diverse array of experiences that truly embody being bear. I think Yoko Tawada likes to thinks that, too, because the ursine characters in her Memoirs of a Polar Bear can expound. They can also perform, live among humans, and write articulate analyses on everything from geopolitics to literature. They author books and speak at conferences and flirt shamelessly with arrogant sea lions.
MPB is broken up into three chapters, covering three generations of polar bears: the grandma, a circus performer turned autobiographer; her daughter Tosca, born in Canada and also renowned in the circus; and Tosca’s son Knut, raised in captivity in a Leipzig zoo. Throughout, we also meet the humans that interact with our protagonists: from circus trainers to politicians to Matthias, a zoo caretaker that serves as Knut’s de facto “mother.” There’s also the Sea Lion—a sneaky book publisher who prints grandma bear’s autobiography without permission—as well as a handful of other animals.
Seeing as this book’s main characters are polar bears, it should come as little surprise that enjoying MPB requires some suspension of disbelief. In addition to the fundamental premise, Tawade takes liberties with narration—it’s not always clear who’s speaking or writing, or from what perspective, or why the bears are so intellectual and advanced in some ways and still so fundamentally… bear-like in others. But if you’re comfortable embracing a world where the next great bestseller might be, idk, The Untold Stories of a Ringling Bros. Elephant, or My Life in Blinders: A Central Park Horse Tale—(really if you’re down with Kafka)—then this novel may be for you.
While MPB’s logic can be hard to follow, the book’s language never suffers for being, arguably, put forth by polar bears (or, as it was IRL, translated into English from the original German). Tawada has some delightful turns of phrase, like willow trees “overcome with ennui,” a spider descending on its “thread elevator,” and an appointment book “attacked by a mildew of obligations.” In different ways, each of the bears also ruminates more deeply on universal themes like passion, artistry, career, family, and the establishment of one’s legacy.
Through her bear characters—bearachters, if you will—Tawada also shows a facility for droll observations. “I can’t actually get sick,” writes the autobiographer. “Someone told me once that illness was a traditional form of theater practiced by office workers, who were allowed to put on these performances only on Mondays when they didn’t want to come to work.” Later: “All penguin marriages are like, while every polar bear marriage is different.”
MPB has all kinds of undertones ( …or overtones? whichever), and some of theme—like romantic-ish relationships between humans and bears—are weird. But other themes, like the individual need for accolades, or the grief of losing a family member, resonate as strongly through their bearacters as they might through a human protagonist. I may have even liked the book more for its whimsical approach to whether the bears being bears even mattered.
Lastly, it seems worth mentioning that some parts of Tawada’s novel are based on real life, including Knut, who was once on the cover of Vanity Fair. Memoirs is at once utterly fantastical and steeped in truth, and that’s a big part of what makes it so strange and delightful.
TITLE: Memoirs of a Polar Bear
AUTHOR: Yoko Tawada
PAGES: 288 (paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Bridegroom was a Dog, Facing the Bridge
SORTA LIKE: Zootopia meets Wicked (the book version)
FIRST LINE: “Someone tickled me behind my ears, under my arms.”