Shortlisted forWinner of the 2017 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation
Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky
This is the third of 4 multi-generational novels I am reading for German Literature Month VII; Buddenbrooks and This House is Mine being books 1 and 2. This story of 3 generations of polar bear is undoubtedly the quirkiest of them all.
Each polar bear has its own dedicated section: the nameless Russian but globe-trotting grandmother; the mother, Tosca, the supreme circus bear and performer, and Knut, Tosca’s son, the baby bear reared by humans in Berlin zoo. Tosca and Knut were real bears. There’s information on both on the web – more about Knut than Tosca admittedly, which might account for how each section becomes more and more grounded in reality. (After all, facts can be cross-checked.)
For quirkiness aside (and who can deny that a novel written by polar bears themselves isn’t something of immediate appeal), Tawada demands a suspension of disbelief like nothing else I’ve picked up in years. The grandmother is a performing, talking polar bear. Moreover capable of writing her own, publishable and highly successful memoirs, which eventually lands her in hot water with the Russian authorities. Who are about to ship her to Siberia, when her supporters arrange for her to escape to Germany. From there she emigrates to Canada, before returning once more to Berlin to raise her daughter Tosca.
You just have to accept that polar bears were highly literate in those days, completely integrated into human society. That no-one would take a second glance at a polar bear doing its own shopping in the fish aisle of the supermarket.
Tosca, however, has lost the power of speech. No reasons are given. Again the reader just has to accept. Nor am I completely sure how she came to be a performing circus bear, but here we are in the middle section and the narrative switches from autobiography to biography. Barbara, Tosca’s trainer, is telling the story of her time with Tosca. (Or is she? No more on this – I’ll leave you to discover the surprise at the end of part two.) The essence of this tale is the development of a deep relationship between bear and trainer in which communication is telepathic. This results in the development of “The Kiss of Death”, a supreme act of trust on behalf of the trainer, in which Barbara sensationally places a sugar lump on her tongue, and Tosca leans down to take it from her. The act is a sensation. Bear and trainer reach stratospheric success in East Germany, but all good things must end. Barbara and Tosca are separated. Tosca is introduced to Lars and Knut is the result.
Again something is lost between generations. This time, Tosca’s ability to nurture her young. She rejects her son, Knut and so part three opens with the baby bear awakening in a crate in Berlin Zoo. There is no doubt that this section, written in free indirect style from Knut’s point-of-view is the most emotive. It fair tugs at the heart strings. How the little bear grows up believing his trainers are his mother. How he is so keen to please. How he has lost all sense to self, writing of himself in third person – until a cruel moment of enlightenment, brought on by the wolves, a not so pliable species. At which point, his narrative switches from third to first person, indicating his dawning self-consciousness. Yet this brings no happiness, because growing-up for Knut is inevitably going to lead to separation from his “mother”. He becomes too big and too dangerous to continue playing with “her”. Increasing loneliness, isolation, even if he is the celebrity with thousands of adoring fans. Remind you of anyone? Michael Jackson, perhaps – and it’s at this point – towards the end of Knut’s narrative – that the surreal elements, when Michael Jackson starts visiting Knut from beyond the grave, that the surreal elements begin to take over once more.
I remind you of the need to suspend your disbelief to make it through these pages.
At this point I’ll confess. I reread this novel for GLM VII. I read it earlier in the year and somehow found it wanting. I’m not a fan of magical realism, and, if you’re reading this just for the quirky storyline, then that’s what it is. Far-fetched, silly and inconsistent at times. But on this reread, I started to see more. On one level, you can read Memoirs as a creative and non-preachy commentary on the relationship between man and the animals, on the rights of animals. How our relationship with the animal kingdom has become more and more unnatural, exploitative and distorted, to the point where we have to question whether it be is kinder to put down a cub rejected by his mother rather than raise it via a human substitute. On another level, assume that the polar bears are humans, and ask whether we treat the weak and vulnerable among ourselves any differently. I’m not sure the novel is entirely successful when read like this, but the exploitation of the grandmother by her publisher (hopefully, not based on the author’s personal experience) and the scenes with Michael Jackson make it clear that Tawada intends to include this interpretation. What prevents it from being obvious?
The polar bears are just too iconic. They quite simply steal the show.