Yoko Tawada’s novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear
(2016) follows three generations of polar bears, two of whom narrate their sections. Tawada never fully explains the bears' anthropomorphism – for example, their ability to communicate with others (both humans and other animals) and to walk on their hind legs. In the fictional world of Memoirs of a Polar Bear
, these traits are simply taken for granted. Nevertheless, there are major differences in the roles individual bears occupy in the human society they find themselves imbricated within in each generation. Following her general approach, Tawada describes these differences without explaining them. This casual folding of the fantastic into a world otherwise realistically depicted most closely aligns the novel stylistically with magical realism
The first protagonist is an unnamed female bear who lives in Cold War-era Soviet Russia. She communicates easily with the humans around her, using both speech and writing. After years of work as a circus bear, she retires from the performance arts to a bureaucratic administrative position that allows her time to work on her autobiography. Although her fluent navigation of human society seems quite ordinary, the bear is quite aware of her difference from the humans around her. In writing her memoirs, she finds plenty of opportunities to comment on human society. Eventually, the bear and her family—which includes her husband and her daughter, Tosca—flee the repression of Soviet Russia for East Germany.
In the next section, the focus shifts to Tosca. This narration is starkly different from her mother's. A former top ballet student, Tosca follows her mother in becoming a circus performer; however, unlike her mother, she relishes the work. For reasons never explained, Tosca cannot speak the way her mother could. Instead, she shares a telepathic bond with one of her trainers, Barbara, and no one else. She and her trainer conspire to design a new trick that will terrify audiences. It requires Tosca to lick a sugar cube from the tongue of her trainer—they call it “The Kiss of Death.” Barbara, who is writing a biography of Tosca's life from the bear's point of view, narrates this section.
The third section of the novel concerns Knut, Tosca's son with another performing polar bear, Lars. Knut is based on a real-life polar bear of the same name, who rose to fame shortly after his birth in 2006 in the Berlin Zoo. Rejected by his mother, the young non-fictional Knut was immediately taken on by Thomas Dörflein, a zoo worker who cared for him studiously as a surrogate parent, famously even sleeping with the young bear at night. Knut's story enthralled the public—and the world—and Knut quickly became an international sensation, attracting enormous numbers of visitors to the zoo. He also attracted enormous attention for the unorthodox nature of his human surrogacy, with some activists arguing that it was unnatural and unjustifiable. When Knut was still young, Dörflein died of a heart attack, leaving the young polar bear orphaned a second time.
Matthias, a trainer clearly modeled on Dörflein, raises the Knut of Memoirs of a Polar Bear
. At first, this section appears to have an external narrator, but it later turns out that Knut was simply telling his own story in the third person. After another animal ridicules him for speaking of himself in the third person, Knut begins to use the first person. Knut's communication capacities differ from both his mother and grandmother; depicted as unable to speak to humans at all, he can speak with animals. The fictional Knut, like the real-world bear that inspired him, is a big tourist attraction. Tawada describes Knut's take on his position in unexpected terms, “Every day, Knut devoted two hours to public service. It was his responsibility to play with Matthias in the enclosure. Rapturous excitement kept bubbling up in the audience, whose faces formed a wall behind the moat. If there hadn’t been a barrier, they would have thrown themselves at Knut. At first, Knut felt pity for the poor humans who couldn’t join in his games because they were trapped on the other side. In his body, he felt their burning desire to touch the little bear and hold him in their arms.”
Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear
, for all of its strangeness, is deeply concerned with traditional themes of isolation, belonging, and the intricacies and pitfalls of communication. Though it is tempting to see the novel as an extended parable, its shifting approaches to its central figures defy easy summation, subsequently making it a difficult work to categorize.