Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Title: Memoirs of a Polar Bear
Author: Tōko Yawada
Translator: Susan Bernofsky
Publisher: Portobello Books
Pages: 252
ISBN: 978-1846276316
Source: Publisher

Book Review

‘Memoirs of a Polar Bear’ tells the story of three polar bears of the same family- the youngest one being Knut, his mother- Tosca and his grandmother. Divided in three parts, the book covers a large span of time from the World War II through the demolition of the Wall of Berlin to the initial decades of the 21st century.

Basically an allegory, the book makes commentary on the humanity as a whole through the voices of these bears. Beneath Tawada’s words lies social as well as political satire. Part I is devoted to the grandmother, who was a performer in a circus and is writing her autobiography. Part II follows her daughter, Tosca’s journey as a circus artist. And finally, the third part is devoted to Knut, who is being raised in the Berlin Zoo by Matthias and Christian

A bear, born and raised in captivity, is devastated by the loss of his keeper; another finds herself performing in the circus; a third sits down one day and pens a memoir which becomes an international sensation, and causes her to flee her home.

Through the stories of these three bears, Tawada reflects on our own humanity, the ways in which we belong to one another and the ways in which we are formed. Delicate and surreal, Memoirs of a Polar Bear takes the reader into foreign bodies and foreign climes, and immerses us in what the New Yorker has called ‘Yoko Tawada’s magnificent strangeness’.

Through the story of these three polar bears, we step into a surreal world that raises many questions about our own real world. Reading this book was like reading three novellas. My favourite was the first part, which talks about the grandmother and her experiences as a writer and a circus performer, in the early part of her life.

Her experiences as a writer made me wonder if the author was sharing her own experiences. She mentions how some unreliable publishers don’t give credit to the writer for their work and do whatever they wish, with the work without even consulting the writer. About writing a memoir, she writes:

“I was giving birth to my own childhood and secretly attending to its upbringing.”

The book also brings forth the harsh reality of the circus world. We are given a glimpse of how the animals are tamed through the grandmother and Tosca’s narrative. Some of these passages were very moving.

“… I sat in my cage, always onstage, never an audience member. If I’d gone out now and then, I would have seen the stove that had been installed under cage. I’d have seen Ivan putting firewood in the stove and lighting it. I might even have seen the gramophone… When the floor of the cage got hot, Ivan would drop the needle of the record. … like a fist shattering a pane of glass, the palms of my paw-hands felt a searing pain. I stood up, and the pain disappeared…”

By writing about such cruel treatment being given to the animals, the author questions the very concept of human rights. Is it justified to fight for human rights while the rights of the animals are being violated? And is humanity all about humans? If walking on two legs is what makes us human, then the circus animals can also be called humans. Isn’t there the need of extending the bounds of our humanity? Tawada raises such questions through her writing and it really made me think about these issues.

Tawada also satirises the corporate world wherein we human beings are busy attending conferences and have no time for ourselves. While the corporal world is seen as taking away one’s identity, in the circus world we find people identifying themselves with animals. Both Barbara and Matthias find solace in the company of Tosca and Knut respectively. Each pair shares a very intimate relationship. Knut, especially, is devastated by news of Matthias’s death.

The second and the third part is more of political satire. But I was unable to comprehend it because of its subtlety and also because I’m not much acquainted with the history. As a result, I found the later part of the book a bit boring. The 1st part stands out for me.

The book is originally written in German. And to be honest, I have nothing to say about the translation of that text because I don’t know German.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book. I highly recommend this one. I don’t read fantasy but this was a book where I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5)

What do you think about this book? Did it fascinate you? If you decide to pick it up, let me know how you like it. Thanks.


*I was kindly sent a review copy by the Publisher. Views expressed are entirely personal and unbiased.*

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One thought on “Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear

  1. Pingback: Half Yearly Wrap Up | Books N Myself

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