I was expecting Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada to be quirky. From my expectation of quirky flowed the idea that it would be lighthearted yet serious. Wow, I was wrong. It is neither lighthearted nor quirky. But that is not a bad thing at all.
The book should more rightly be called memoirs of polar bears, because it is told by three different bears. We begin with mama bear, who does not have a name. She is retired from performing at a circus in East Germany and given a desk job. It seems that mama bear can talk to humans and they can talk to her and everyone understands each other perfectly. Mama bear begins writing her memoirs and it is a huge success. But the publisher takes advantage of her and pays her almost nothing and when she protests, he stops publishing her work. Some people in Berlin help her defect. She continues to write but begins to realize she is still being used but in a different way. So she emigrates to Canada. There she has a baby.
The baby is named Tosca and she takes up the next part of the story. Tosca moves to Berlin, perhaps to escape the fame of her mother. She is known for dancing but she is discriminated against for a part in a big show because she is not small and delicate. Tosca is invited by a Berlin circus to be their feature act. She agrees and begins working with Barbara, an animal trainer, to put together an act.
Unlike mama bear, Tosca doesn’t seem to be able to talk to everyone. However, she and Barbara talk to each other in dream-like moments in which they sometimes meld together. As they put together the show Barbara spends more and more time with Tosca. Barbara’s husband accuses her of having an affair with another man at the circus. But the affair is really with Tosca. They become famous for the act they perform — a tango that ends with and open mouth “kiss.” The kiss involves Tosca taking a sugar cube with her tongue from Barbara’s mouth.
Eventually Tosca retires from the circus and has a baby with Lars, a polar bear at a Berlin zoo. But Tosca is writing her memoirs and leaves baby Knut with a different zoo in Berlin because she finds that having a child interferes with her writing.
The third part of the book is told by Knut. Knut is raised by the human Matthias who provides all the love and care a mother would. Knut even comes to see Matthias as his mother:
Matthias was a true mammal, far more so than many of his sort, because he gave me suck: he fed me not only milk but part of his own life. He was the pride of all mammals.
Matthias wasn’t even a distant relative…The wolf was proud of the fact that the members of his family looked as alike as photocopies. But I revere Matthias for having suckled and cared for a creatures like me who was not at all similar to him. The wolf devoted himself only to the expansion of his own family. Matthias, on the other hand, gazed into the distance, all the way to the North Pole.
Isn’t that marvelous? It gives you an idea of what the book is really about — what does it mean to be human? What is an animal? Can we overcome the barriers? Are there barriers? As you can imagine, many of the humans are more animal-like than the animals and the polar bears are very human. Memoirs of a Polar Bear turns out to be a thought-provoking story not just about humans and animals but also about difference, about the “other” and how we relate to someone who is not, like the wolf is so proud of, photocopies of ourselves. I am glad this book turned out to be different than I expected.