Yoko Tawada’s ‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ Is a Waking Dream Filled With Love and Longing


The best time to read German-Japanese author Yoko Tawada’s latest novel, Memoirs of a Polar Bear, is right before bed, entering the novel through what Anne Carson might call the “sleep side.” Translated into English from German by Susan Bernofsky (already a translation from the Japanese by Tawada herself), Memoirs may indeed require a dampening of the prefrontal cortex, as it is narrated by not just one, but three generations of polar bears. The first is a writer who accidentally sells a bestselling memoir; the second, her daughter Tosca, is a circus bear who falls in love with her trainer Barbara (modeled after the real-life trainer Ursula Böttcher); the third, Tosca’s son, is none other than Germany’s most famous polar bear, Knut. But just as language can never fully capture the emotional resonance of a dream, this novel cannot be fully accessed through plot summary alone. With its whimsical leaps of logic and wobbly focalization, Memoirs of a Polar Bear offers a welcome reprieve from the sharp, exacting contours of the linguistic realm (where the primary enterprise is sense-making), enveloping the reader in a softer, snowier landscape of love and longing in its purest form.

Still, if one feels compelled to dissect Memoirs and come at it from the logic of waking life, it wouldn’t be a stretch to read the novel as an allegory for migrant identity. The permeability of borders — between languages and waking states, for instance — has long been a preoccupying theme for Tawada. (She has written almost two dozen books in German and won countless prizes, including the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Goethe Medal.) Born in 1960 in Tokyo, where she studied Russian literature, Tawada moved to Germany in 1982 to pursue a doctorate in German literature. As a result of her multilingual fluency, her novels often explore the ways in which migration between languages reformulates one’s subject position, as identity can often be shaped by the dictates of grammar. In her story “The Bath,” for instance, there is an extended meditation on the different, gendered ways of saying “I” in Japanese; and in her novel The Naked Eye, the first-person “I” and the addressed “you” alternate until subject and object fuse into one.

Memoirs plays these same sorts of grammatical games: All three sections feature shifts of narrative voice from first- to third-person, from animal to human, from past to present tense. The opening deliberately blurs the boundaries between author (Tawada) and narrator (bear), intimating proximity through similar biographical details. The unnamed narrator goes to a boring literature conference; she raises her hand to expound on the untapped potential of bicycles. Eventually, we learn that the narrator is in fact a bear living singularly among humans, and that this is a universe where such interspecies commingling seems plausible. We don’t wonder too much how the bear is managing to check in to a hotel, but the bear does tell us that she eats a lot of salmon purchased from the supermarket. Where does she eat? How? With a fork and knife? The logistics seem unimportant. There’s no description of an elaborately jigged-up typewriter or paw-friendly pen, but somehow the bear has managed to write that bestselling memoir (title: Thunderous Applause for My Tears).

Nevertheless, the bear is portrayed as starkly “other”: Touted as a representative of the “ethnic minority” and encouraged by her exploitative publisher (a human she nicknames “Sea Lion”) to write about her “experiences” (rather than her ideas), she is also told to write in her “mother tongue” (“We have a fantastic translator”) to preserve a further degree of authenticity. Estranged from both mother tongue and ancestral homeland (the North Pole), the narrator asks: “Was exile like a sort of tightrope walking, a feat worthy of a reward?” Writing makes legible an otherwise illegible self, but the burden of representing the entire species can be extremely taxing. (Throughout her narration, the bear seeks out bootlegged vodka to help cope with the stress of writing.)

In one particularly telling scene, as the grandmother bear is in a bookstore picking up the animal stories of Franz Kafka, the bookseller tells her: “This literature is valuable as literature, not because it was written from a minority perspective. In fact, the main character is never an animal. During the process by which an animal is transformed into a non-animal or a human into a non-human, memory gets lost, and it’s this loss that is the main character.” While the bear muses in the moment that this all sounds like a lot of “side salad,” she later admits: “The dog in the story ‘Investigations of a Dog’ was occupied with the present, he chose griping and brooding over cobbling together a plausible childhood. Why can’t I write the present? Why do I have to invent an authentic sounding past?” Kafka never had to justify himself to his audience. Perhaps, then, to write unapologetically from the perspective of an animal is to embrace otherness at its most extreme: It is an exercise of both radical empathy and radical dissent. After suffering a series of micro-aggressions, the bear announces: “I won’t write about the past, I’ll write about all the things that are still going to happen to me. My life will unfold in exactly the way I’ve set it down on the page.”

Tawada tells me that the interlocking structure in the opening sections between childhood reminiscences and the predicaments of the present moment was heavily informed by the novels and autobiographies of migrant authors. “If you are from somewhere else,” she says, “your friends don’t know where you come from. They don’t know what that country looked like, they don’t know why you do something or don’t. It is like making yourself through literature. Because otherwise, nobody knows who you are.” The grandmother bear in Memoirs admits something similar: “My life changed because I’d made myself an author. Or to be precise, it wasn’t exactly me who did that, I was made an author by the sentences I’d written.” Identity arises out of language, but language also circumscribes and flattens. When the baby polar bear Knut finally learns to speak of himself in the human first-person, he experiences it as a profound loss. “Once I started using the word ‘I,’ the words spoken by others struck me like stones. I would flop down on the bed, exhausted and wrung-out.”

Writing literature from an anthropomorphized animal’s point of view is actually quite common in Japan, Tawada says, but in the West, animal tales tend to be relegated to children’s fables and cartoons.”I observe the European language from outside as Japanese,” Tawada says. “To see human beings from the outside, I had to be an animal.” She has adopted this stance before: In her novella The Bridegroom Was a Dog, which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, the schoolmistress’s suitor is characterized as possessing a voracious appetite and a large, lapping tongue. As if to trace this lineage, within Memoirs, there are multiple references to the long tradition of animal stories — from Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy,” “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” and “Investigations of a Dog” to Heinrich Heine’s famous mock saga, Atta Troll, which features a Marxist bear who goes on strike to protest unacceptable working conditions.

But all this interpretation surely deadens the associative pleasures the book provides. Tawada says the book is above all a translation into language of the different types of nonverbal communication that we make with animals, with the dead, and with our inherited history. Entering the book from the sleep side, I see exactly what she means. This is a book about loving without language. Tosca and trainer Barbara, bear and human, lack a common tongue, so they can only visit each other in dreams. For anyone who has yearned for an inaccessible love object, the emotional truth of this type of communion feels exactly right. Dreams actualize the impossible. Through these repeated visitations, Tosca and Barbara come up with an epic circus act — to lock their tongues in a kiss. (Tawada tells me that in Slavic and Turkic languages, the words for “tongue” and “language” are the same.) Language may be composed wholly of broken shards, but somewhere there will always be an expanse of pristine white snow, where nothing has happened and no traces have been left, as fresh as a blank page, unadulterated by words.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear

By Yoko Tawada

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

New Directions

288 pp.