A human soul turned out to be less romantic than I'd imagined. It was made up out primarily of languages—not just ordinary, comprehensible languages, but also many broken shards of language, the shadow of languages, and images that couldn't be turned into words. (p. 163)
I am not, alas, as up to speed on my postmodernism as I might be. Many of you will have a greater understanding of the performative turn in the social sciences than I could ever hope for, but this is exactly what Yoko Tawada (in a book originally published in German in 2014) demands the reader wrestle with, through the somewhat oblique medium of ursine sentience. You'll just have to bear with me.
Language is arguably the primary means through which we perform ourselves as social beings, as humans. The words you speak are a, perhaps the, key manifestation of who you are, so change the manner of your saying and you change the manner of yourself. Tawada is a Japanese-German author who's won major awards in both languages over the last few decades, and so is perhaps more aware of this situation than most. At a less rarified level, it's something that will be familiar to anyone who's moved from one linguistic community to another, in a process that's inherently disorienting. The symptoms of this (metaphorical and literal) dislocation are often lumped together under the umbrella term “culture shock,” but there are frequently more fundamental issues of personal identity at stake: How do you perform your self if you lack the means of performance? If the projection of identity is largely an act of ventriloquism, how can you throw your voice if you lack for the projectiles? In practice, this means the act of emigration is frequently also one of regression: if you like to think you've a certain faculty with language, then finding yourself on an expressive par with toddlers can be quite brutally humbling.
Some people say spring makes them young again. But a person who gets younger returns to childhood, a return not without its indignities. (p. 9)
Which brings us more or less directly to baby bears. Knut, you may recall, was a polar bear cub born in Berlin Zoo who, abandoned at birth by his mother and successfully raised by his keepers, became something of a media phenomenon in the mid-to-late noughties. This is the germ of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which, were we to attach a label to it, could be described as a magical-realist retcon of how this lovable ball of fluff found himself performing for the world's attention back. Knut appears only in the last third of a book which, literalizing that return to childhood, also extends back through two older generations of what I suppose I'm going to have to call Knut’s forebears: his mother—a circus performer in East Germany—and her mother—a Russian writer and academic who finds herself in exile, first in West Berlin, and later Canada.
The only memoirist proper is Knut's grandmother, who narrates the opening section and is, perhaps, the singular polar bear of the English title (of which more later). Her story is the most openly fantastical, when taken point-by-point: An academic in cold war Russia specializing in circus performance, she (she never tells us her name) is indirectly inspired by a Russian translation of a Japanese diarist to write her own memoirs. Titled Thunderous Applause for My Tears by her unscrupulous publisher ("You know perfectly well that it is part of my physical constitution to be incapable of tears. Why the inane title?" p. 27), it becomes a runaway success and attracts exactly the wrong kind of official attention, after which she is set up as an exile in West Berlin by a group specializing in helping persecuted artists emigrate to the West and who, it transpires, have their own preconceived expectations for her manner of expression:
"But this way I can learn German. I'll write in German and you can save time. No more translations."
"No, that's out of the question! You have to write in your own mother tongue. You're supposed to be pouring out your heart, and that needs to happen in a natural way." (p. 51)
What's "natural" for a polar bear is, of course, very different from what's natural for her hosts (the world of the book is still largely the human one as we'd recognize it). I'm always slightly skeptical about animal narrators, not least because it's a device that has a seemingly inherent tendency to skew towards the twee. It endures, however, not least because animals represent an unambiguous other, with all the attendant potential for metaphor that represents—a potential that Tawada is not shy in exploiting. While the allegorical pudding here is occasionally overegged, it's equally often deftly prepared, particularly when highlighting the occasionally absurd situations surrounding negotiations of "naturalness," conformity, acceptance, and everyday acts of minor resistance:
"All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different," I wrote in Russian and demonstratively placed the manuscript page on my desk … As expected, Herr Jäger and Wolfgang showed up several days later and immediately found the sentence I'd left for them. Wolfgang translated it into German and exclaimed euphorically: "Weltliteratur!" (p. 58)
Grating against the constraints imposed on her (while, incidentally, preempting the current zeitgeist by punching a few Nazis), Knut's grandmother emigrates again. In Canada she gives birth to a daughter, Tosca, who we meet more fully in the second part, entitled "The Kiss of Death." The story returns to the Eastern Bloc and the performative arena, as Tosca and her trainer Barbara work together to create the titular circus act in pre-reunification East Germany. This section, despite a troupe of bears forming a union and going on strike, is more grounded in reality, being notionally narrated by Barbara. I say notionally because dream sequences and typesetting work to suggest that it might be Tosca doing the writing, or maybe even Tosca's mother. The narrative levels are all quite thoroughly blurred.
Tosca's voice was as clear as a thin, transparent sheet of ice. "I, on the other hand, can't write anything at all."
"Why not?" I asked.
"My mother already described me as a character in her book." (p. 110)
The final section, bringing us at last to Knut and that return to childhood, is in many ways the least successful. It shows us the infant Knut as he's raised by his handlers and explores his surroundings in Berlin Zoo and, just to really hammer home the theme of performativity, features a cameo from one of the more (in)famous entertainers of the late twentieth century (though it would seem that this is something of a leitmotif for Tawada). It also exemplifies both the benefits and risks of the narrator-as-immature-animal: Full advantage is taken of the opportunities offered to contrast Knut's nescience against his developing expression of selfhood as he is taught the word (and, it's implied, the concept) "I" by a supercilious sun bear. This impacts directly upon the narration, undercutting once more our sense of writer and character, and who is expressing whom. Unfortunately, however, the tweeness that was so successfully avoided in the earlier sections also finally breaks through, the prose is noticeably more leaden, and there's a frankly disconcerting fixation on anuses, which, ok … makes a sort of sense, I guess.
There's really no good way to segue out of that line, so I'm just going to move on and note that one of the most obvious comparators to Memoirs of a Polar Bear is I Am a Cat by Natsume Soseki (1905). Natsume occupies a similar position in the Japanese canon to Charles Dickens in the British, and in I Am a Cat he used the device of a smugly superior feline narrator to satirize Meiji-era society. A key theme was the growing Westernization of Japan and the awkward accommodations thereby provoked; Tawada is similarly concerned with piloting a course through the rapids and eddies of cultural confluences, but in this instance at the other end of Eurasia. The Japanese title of Natsume's book is wagahai wa neko de aru; this is in a very formal register, closer in tone to "One is Feline" in English, the joke being that this cat had ideas far above its station. I was aware of the English version of Natsume's work before I ever encountered the original Japanese, and when I first tried to talk about it with Japanese friends I back-translated the title to the much plainer “watashi wa neko desu.” Everyone found my unintentional puncturing of the cat's pomposity hilarious, and we all guffawed like the characters in the closing scene of a 1980s children's cartoon (so far too long and far too hard at something that was mildly amusing at best).
I mention this for two reasons: Firstly, humor is notoriously difficult to translate, and it's fair to say you need to work quite hard to get at the jokes in Memoirs of a Polar Bear. They're present, certainly, as in Herr Jäger’s Weltliteratur, but the prose consistently favors precision over lyricism—and the result can be quite stilted and utterly deadpan, meaning the reader has to take a lot of emotional scutwork upon themselves. The second is that in this book, about language and translation and (re)presentation—about the many layers we wrap and rewrap around our senses of self, of "I"—the metatextual considerations are at least as thought provoking as those within the text itself: the English edition offers us a linguistic palimpsest to match the narrative one.
Tawada reportedly wrote this book in Japanese before translating it into German herself, and Susan Bernofsky has subsequently translated that translation into English. To talk of it having an “original” title is arguably to imply the very question it was written to pose (though not, we should note, necessarily to answer): which of these versions represents the “real” story? And to whom would it represent itself? In other words, even the book's name is an exercise in how the various stages of linguistic transition can disguise some things while simultaneously revealing others. Whatever Japanese title Tawada may have intended is hidden from us, while the German—Etüden im Schnee (Études in the Snow) —is opaque. Only once we reach the third linguistic iteration does the indefinite article (of which English has two variations, German many, and Japanese none at all) make an appearance: a polar bear. The determiner in this last version, I would suggest, comes oddly close to spoiler territory.
But what we gain on the swings of grammatical necessity, we also lose on the roundabouts of interpretative licence. A coldness born of distance pervades the book, appropriately enough, and for all that the wry observations on the situation of the immigrant certainly rang true, I struggled to pin down much of an emotional core. While unsurprising, given the struggles of the main characters to pin down their own senses of self, this detachment does push you towards a greater understanding of the German title: études are short, technically dense musical pieces practiced in order to perfect a specific skill. The imagery and imagination on display here are by turns intriguing and beguiling, but you can never quite escape the sense that what you're witnessing is first and foremost an exercise in artistic technique.
Knut died at the early age of four, in 2011, and, while he was still alive as Memoirs was being written, this metatextual foreshadowing inescapably influences the reading experience. It is, however, the nature of these things, these lives, to remain unresolved, and there's a lack of resolution here which is, I suspect, entirely deliberate. Through both accident and design, Tawada and Bernofsky have produced a slightly alienating book on alienation that is simultaneously memoir, memorial, and memento mori.
Exit, pursued by a bear.