Book review: “Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada

This was April’s book in my Facebook reading challenge – I had mistakenly assumed it was a children’s book, as that was our theme for the month. It quickly became apparent to me that it definitely was not! This raises an interesting question in itself, however: why are we enchanted by our children’s books, with their talking animals, cross-species interaction, and animals mixing, seemingly without comment, in the human world, and yet, for our ‘adult’ books, we find this difficult to accept? Don’t get me wrong, I did indeed find this a really challenging read, and I’m still not really sure what I think about it, but it has made me realise that the genre of magical realism, into which I think this book falls, requires a certain openness of mind that we have to be really ready for. I think part of my problem, particularly with the opening section of the book, is that it really wasn’t what I was expecting. I felt somewhat thrown and it inhibited my engagement with the book.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear imgI’ll summarise the basic story of the novel. Part one is the most surreal and the most difficult. It is narrated by the nameless ‘grandmother polar bear’ (grandparent to Knut, star of part three). She has been reared as an attraction in the Soviet Union, by a cruel master, who, among other things, teaches her to stand on her back legs using what we would now regard as unethical methods. I think that by getting the bear to stand like a human the author justifies the morphing of her subject into something less animal. Throughout this part we are asked to suspend our disbelief: the bear escapes Soviet Russia, writes her memoirs, and flees to Germany, where she is ‘protected’ by an unscrupulous agent who simply wants to exploit her because her book has been so popular. The bear visits bookshops, makes human friends and animal enemies (the sea-lion publisher who makes ever more unreasonable demands). It’s all very tricky for us as adult readers.

I think part one is the most overtly political: there is the comment on the dehumanisation of life in the Soviet Union (thus the blurring of the boundaries between the animal and the human?), the bear as outcast (because she is foreign not because she is a bear), the futility of administrative and management practices, and about the impact of climate change – there are frequent references throughout the book to the threat to the species from the disappearance of its natural Arctic habitat. I think as a reader you just have to accept its surreal qualities.

Part two is about the polar bear’s daughter Tosca, who is a circus performer in East Germany. It is narrated by Tosca’s trainer, Barbara (although there is an interesting twist at the end of this part which I won’t spoil), and as such it feels more ‘normal’ to us as readers. Tosca and Barbara develop a very deep connection, which results in extraordinary performances, driving the greedy circus managers to demand ever more dramatic stunts. Her relationship with the polar bear leads Barbara to reflect deeply on the relationship between humans and animals and the author exposes the hypocrisy of the humans, who for example, see polar bears as aggressive and unpredictable whilst prosecuting violent wars themselves. There is also an exploration of gender inequality in this part as the trainer Barbara is as exploited as her animal charge.

knut the polar bear
Knut the polar bear (2006-2011) with his keeper at Berlin Zoo

The final part of the book is about Knut, Tosca’s son, and is based on real events. Tosca says that she gave Knut away (in reality he was rejected by his mother, the inference being that reproduction in captivity drives unnatural behaviours), and he is raised by a human keeper, with whom, once again, he develops a very deep bond. I found this part the most moving and it is definitely more rooted in realism, even though it is narrated by the bear. I have read a little bit about Knut subsequently and it has made my reading of this part of the book more poignant. (Knut died suddenly in Berlin Zoo in 2011, aged only four years, from a brain disease). This part of the book truly challenges our attitude to animals and our use of them in captivity for entertainment, amusement and commercial gain. It also exposes most starkly our attitudes to climate change, habitat loss and species decline: we claim to raise animals in captivity (with all the inherent cruelty that entails) so that we can protect the species, without doing anything about the underlying causes of species decline.


Overall, I found this book quite difficult to engage with – I wish I’d known a bit more about it before I started it, but all the reviews I read didn’t really give much away about what the book was about. That is normal for book reviews – no-one wants to give away a spoiler. But there isn’t much to spoil in this book because there is no ‘plot’ as such. I think I could also have engaged with it more if someone had told me to read with a very open mind! That’s a lesson for me as a reader. I have enjoyed this book more in retrospect, as I have reflected on its subject matter and themes, and I am glad I have read it, even if it didn’t always keep me awake at bedtime!

Recommended if you like these themes and can be open to the surreal!

How did you get on with the surreal aspects of this novel?

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