Ana's Reviews > Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yōko Tawada
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really liked it
bookshelves: magical-realism, xx-donated

When would Matthias show his face again? How unendurable Knut found this question, or maybe it wasn't the question, it was just the time he spent waiting, he thought. Once time began to exist, it was impossible for it to end on its own.

Magical realism has always been a bit of a hit and miss for me. I used to devour anything Haruki Murakami wrote a few years ago; however, I don’t think I would enjoy Norwegian Wood today as much, but I would probably appreciate the The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle even more. Ultimately, I guess it depends on how I choose to approach it at a certain point in time. In this case, it’s safe to say that Memoirs of a Polar Bear came at the right time for me.

This novel tells the story of three generations of polar bears, through which we are able to explore different issues and human-animal relationships. These three voices share a common theme, namely analyzing things through the eyes of an outsider: coming from a foreign country, speaking a different language and, of course, embodying a different species.

First off, we get to know a polar bear from the USSR who finds her true calling as a writer after retiring from the circus. She starts writing her autobiography and, upon achieving moderate success, is forced into exile. One detail that I particularly enjoyed is that, once she is settled in Germany, she decides to continue writing her work in German, rather than Russian. Her editor opposes to her decision, since he fears that writing in a language other than her mother tongue might hinder her creativity. However, the concept of having a “mother tongue” is also foreign to the polar bear, since she doesn’t think her mother is represented by any language. After researching Yōko Tawada's biography, it becomes clear that this is an obvious nod to her experience and career, as she herself is an exophonic writer. In fact, I was surprised to find out that Memoirs of a Polar Bear had been translated from German.

In the second part, we meet Tosca, her daughter, a successful circus performer from East Berlin. The tone shifts abruptly as the story is told from her trainer’s perspective, rather than the bear’s. By the end of this story, it becomes difficult to tell who the real narrator is. Is it the trainer telling Tosca’s story, or is it Tosca telling the story of the trainer telling Tosca’s story?

Lastly, Tosca is sold to the Berlin Zoo, where she gives birth to Knut and his brother. Knut is the only survivor who, after being rejected from his own mother, must be raised by zookeepers Matthias and Christian. Needless to say, it’s not a coincidence: Knut was a very famous polar bear born and raised in the Berlin Zoo in 2006, who unfortunately passed away at the age of four. Knut’s story brings into question issues of animal welfare, especially what it means for wild animals to be raised and kept by humans.

Overall, I would say this was a thoroughly enjoyable read-- funny, tender, but also heartbreaking at times. However, I didn't get the sudden ending or the purpose of the character introduced in the last few pages.

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Reading Progress

June 4, 2017 – Started Reading
June 4, 2017 – Shelved
June 4, 2017 –
page 36
June 5, 2017 –
page 133
June 6, 2017 –
page 176
June 8, 2017 – Finished Reading

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