Title: Memoirs of a Polar Bear
Author: Yōko Tawada
Tawada includes to real-life polar bears in her creative book about 3 generations of polar bears. Tosca and Knut are both based off polar bears of the same name found at a German zoo. In fact, Knut is internationally known as the face of climate change.
Anyway, the story starts out with the grandmother who is writing her autobiography after being a hit circus performer. Out of all the three, her story is the most engaging. Following her story is her daughter, Tosca’s, story. Instead of seeing through Tosca’s eyes, we see through her trainer’s eyes instead. I found it easier to connect with part two than part one but found the grandmother’s story to be more engrossing. Finally, there is Knut, Tosca’s son. He’s a carefully monitored zoo polar bear, raised by humans until he becomes a danger to his own keepers.
Tawada’s story is heavily based on surrealism. The polar bears have access to their own computers and are able to write. They may not be able to verbally communicate, but they make up for it through email or the written word. From circuses to zoos, Tawada forces readers to look at the polar bears as equals. The separation of human vs. animal is made clear in laws that the writer challenges.
This novel is highly metaphorical and I feel that I’ve missed a lot. But even if things went over my head, there are obvious things, like seeing laws decide who or what has human rights. It also includes unions and the discussion of worker rights, socialism, and many other political ideologies. From the USSR to exile, Germany to Canada, and back to Germany, readers will each see the political climate of these countries during 3 different generations.
Tawada effortlessly includes real-life events into a tale that is almost hard to imagine. But she trusts her readers and if you just go with it, it makes it all the better.
So why the 3 stars?
Mostly I felt a huge disconnect, even to the grandmother. I found it hard to suspend my expectations, particularly when these polar bears had their own computers (even in their own cages). That’s probably a metaphor. Besides that, it was hard to feel a connection to the characters. Certain themes became too repetitious for me and didn’t flow. And by the third part (Knut’s), I found it hard to pay attention.
But I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the surreal. I’ve never read a book quite like this.