Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (Portobello Books, 2016)
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem, winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2017. At first I was a bit nonplussed when I was given this book as a gift: animal narrators are one of those quirks that usually make a novel fall into the “not my thing” category (although, as I mentioned in a previous post, I am trying to challenge my own perceptions about what is or is not “my thing”). Irrational dismissal of articulate polar bears aside, it’s hard to argue with the multiple positive reviews on the jacket cover: “enchanting”, “profound”, “beautiful”, “magnificent”, “exquisite” and “beguiling” are just some of the accolades bestowed on Memoirs of a Polar Bear, and I can’t say it doesn’t merit this proliferation of appreciative adjectives. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada steps outside human narration to better observe human nature.
Though Tawada is a prestigious writer in both Japan and Germany (she was born in Tokyo but moved to Germany in her twenties, and writes in both Japanese and German), Memoirs of a Polar Bear was the first of her novels to be published in the United Kingdom (she has since published Last Children of Tokyo, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani). Tawada’s translator from German, Susan Bernofsky, was also the translator of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days (another Portobello Books jewel), and if you read my review of that then you’ll know how much I admire Bernofsky. I have not yet read a single Portobello book that I haven’t enjoyed, and I hope that when Granta Books shutters the Portobello imprint next year, the magnificent women in translation catalogue continues to grow. Neither Portobello nor Bernofsky disappoint here; Bernofksy’s prose in her translation of Memoirs of a Polar Bear is just beautiful. There were sections that I read over and over, so that their beauty could sink in fully (“Suddenly a thought struck me like a stone: I can never see him again. Of course it was perfectly possible that I’d never have been able to see him again even if he’d remained alive. But I would have gone on thinking now and then: Maybe I’ll see him again after all. This ‘maybe’ is what human beings call hope. My ‘maybe’ was dead.”) There is no unnecessary flourish or embellishment: the prose is lyrical but not florid, poetic but not melodramatic. In a novel of 250 pages, there were only two words that struck me as imperfect; it is truly a remarkable feat to translate so much with such beauty.
The polar bear protagonists are shown in all their humanity, while never losing the characteristics that make them bears. The humans are observed close-up, their smells giving away their feelings and their body language belying their intentions: as it turns out, the polar bears are able to observe the human characters more accurately than any homo sapiens narrator could. It is through the eyes of animals that the complexity of human relationships and historical progress are brought to light: from the restrictions of the Communist regime to concerns about climate change, human history and characteristics are observed and questioned, without ever moralising or turning to propaganda. The three bears – the unnamed exiled memoirist of the first section, her daughter Tosca, and Tosca’s son Knut – are as flawed and as fallible as the humans they seek to understand, but their characterisation and narration is close to divine.
The most remarkable section of this book, in my opinion, was the final one (about a bear cub and his beloved zookeeper). As far as I can tell, this is where the writing process might have started: Knut is the real-life bear born in Berlin Zoo in 2006, whose progress was recorded in minute detail and who captured hearts worldwide while he was a cub. The relationship between Knut and his keeper Matthias moved me deeply and had me thinking about the story long after I had closed the book: the bond is described from Knut’s point of view, and he understands Matthias to be a parent to him, a person who is Knut’s whole universe and who protects him from any threats or danger. Reading this attachment through the child’s eyes was a moving experience for me, and the pivotal moment when we realise that the third-person narrative voice was actually Knut’s all along is one of great beauty. Knut’s reaction when Matthias has to be kept from him for his own safety is heartbreaking; Tawada is skilled at observing seemingly small incidents and the magnitude of their impact on an individual (furred or not). The boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership, individual and collective experience are all blurred, erased, moved, and re-drawn, and for a book I thought would be “not my thing”, Memoirs of a Polar Bear was memorable for all the right reasons. I am glad and grateful to have had the opportunity to read it, and I can only urge you to do the same (if you haven’t already).
The second Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will be awarded TONIGHT, Tuesday 13th November, in a ceremony starting at 6.30pm BST. I’m so sad that I can’t be there, but shall be following it closely on social media – you can see the shortlist here!