on Memoirs of a Polar Bear, a novel by Yoko Tawada, trans. by Susan Bernofsky (New Directions)
In 2002, a collection of stories by Yoko Tawada called Überseezungen was published in Germany. The term was coined by Tawada from the words Übersee (“overseas”) and Zungen (“tongues”). In an interview, she relates that as a child she “found it fun to speak a jumble of words, sheer nonsense, and make grown-ups laugh.” Her title’s neologism echoes the word Übersetzungen meaning “translations,” and the stories in that collection, as well as all her prose fictions, are taken up with the theme of communication and its limitations, especially between unequals: the powerful and the alien. No wonder her work has resonated in Germany.
Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960 and enrolled at Hamburg University in 1982 to study contemporary German literature. She then earned a doctorate at the University of Zurich and has lived in Germany ever since. Drawn instinctively to Kafka, Benjamin, Schulz and Celan, she enlisted herself as their heir. Beginning with her early prose fiction of the late 1980s (some in Japanese, some in German), she has applied her multilingual talents to troubled notions of dislocation, jumbled or imposed identities, and the urgencies of expression. Troubled, yes, but shaded throughout with wonder and comedic verve.
Since adolescence, Tawada seems to have been translating from the pure language of herself that so amused her elders. From Benjamin, she adopted the concept that translation assumes an existence of its own which feeds the evolving life of the original. The narrator of her story “Where Europe Begins” says, “Most of the words that came out of my mouth had nothing to do with how I felt. But at the same time I realized that my native tongue didn’t have words for how I felt either. It’s just that this never occurred to me until I’d begun to live in a foreign language.”
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is the fifth of her prose fiction works to be translated for anglophones. The novel’s successive narrators are three generations of polar bears. The first is the grandmother, a circus performer in the Soviet Union who emigrates to Canada via East Germany. Part two is the story of her daughter Tosca who moves back to the DDR and also performs in the circus. The grandmother is a best-selling memoirist and Tosca writes, too. Finally, there is Tosca’s son, Knut, a newborn in captivity.
A novel with an unconventional premise is often little more than a performance space for the author’s virtuosity. Not so with Tawada. First sentence: “Someone tickled me under my ears, under my arms.” From that point, she takes responsibility for awakening the reader to a new strange life. Her bears are ursine by nature but have learned to relate to the human world, often seeming to exist in an unnamed state between the two poles. They are also perceptive, regarding the human with childlike curiosity. The grandmother speaks:
Homo sapiens is sluggish in its movements, as if it had too much superfluous flesh, but at the same time it is pathetically thin. It blinks too often, particularly at decisive moments when it needs to see everything. When nothing’s happening, it finds some reason for frenetic movement, but when actual danger threatens, its responses are far too slow. Homo sapiens is not made for battle, so it ought to be like rabbits and deer and learn the wisdom and the art of flight. But it loves battle and war. Who made these foolish creatures? Some humans claim to be made in God’s image — what an insult to God. There are, however, in the northern reaches of our Earth, small tribes who can still remember that God looked like bear.
Yet the pulse of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is not primarily satiric. The bears are constantly working out their relations to humans. Much is at risk. For grandmother and Tosca, the challenge is devising an artful circus act under human supervision – of satisfying human demand while constantly aware of their status as outsiders, exiled from the arctic cold. For Knut, too young to perform, the issue is his desire for attention and affection while being handled by various caretakers.
“The function of a work of art is to lead us to the process of creation which it contains,” wrote John Berger. He was speaking about drawing. By process he meant a reaching toward the actual. “The image has to be full, he insisted, “not of resemblance but of searching.” Tawada’s bears exist in a marginal state between the ursine and the human. As subjects of their master’s intentions, they are exploited. They are employees, even members of a union. Their business is dispensing delight, creating tableaux that thrill audiences. Look, the polar bear is pouring herself a cup of tea!
Tawada’s novel is her own trained other whose body and soul are the weight and spirit of captive life. Her tableaux must seem so illusively real that the reader doesn’t look through them too easily as social comment. They must comprise a complete world unto itself – but the author is aware of her precarious situation. In part II, Tosca’s trainer Barbara narrates (though Tawada here executes her most daring narrative stunt by switching the speaking almost seamlessly between Tosca and Barbara as if they can read each other’s thoughts):
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. Even when my condition and motivation were at their peak, I often had to break off a rehearsal if the leopard was in a bad mood. I had to stay relaxed, fill my empty day with other tasks, and not impatiently count the days until the premiere.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear gestures toward a severe moral outcome and privileges eccentric expression and a multithreaded perspective -- a partial answer to the world – even though it knows that in 2011, a polar bear named Knut, the first to be born in captivity at the Berlin Zoo, drowned there and was later found to have suffered an autoimmune inflammation of the brain.
[Published November 8, 2016. 288 pages, $16.95 paperback]