The Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Author(s): Yoko Tawada

Novel | 2017 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The Memoirs of a Polar Bear has in spades what Rivka Galchen hailed in the New Yorker as "Yoko Tawada's magnificent strangeness"-Tawada is an author like no other. Three generations (grandmother, mother, son) of polar bears are famous as both circus performers and writers in East Germany: they are polar bears who move in human society, stars of the ring and of the literary world. In chapter one, the grandmother matriarch in the Soviet Union accidentally writes a bestselling autobiography. In chapter two, Tosca, her daughter (born in Canada, where her mother had emigrated) moves to the DDR and takes a job in the circus. Her son-the last of their line-is Knut, born in chapter three in a Leipzig zoo but raised by a human keeper in relatively happy circumstances in the Berlin zoo, until his keeper, Matthias, is taken away...Happy or sad, each bear writes a story, enjoying both celebrity and "the intimacy of being alone with my pen."

Memoirs of A Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada is a novel told in three parts, each part the story of a member of three generations of polar bears. The matriarch of the family opens the book. I was captivated by view of her life, which begins in the circus. Her description of learning to walk on her hind legs and the mystery of the human world is compelling. She leaves the circus to follow her real calling - being a writer. She’s  a tough character, who follows her whims and retains her sense of self and all her ursine nature while living a very human life as a celebrated writer. This is surreal, but as I read I found it more and more believable. Tawada is able to make you believe even while you are disconcerted by the idea of the matriarch being simultaneously bear and human - it is all too possible. The next part tells the story of her daughter, Tosca, who is a performer in a circus in East Germany. In this story, a charged affair takes place in the mystical dreams of Tosca and her trainer. The third part tells the story of the grandson, Knut, and his life in the Berlin zoo. This could easily be a farcical novel, but Tawada’s ability to make you believe in the lives of the polar bears, her clever writing in creating different scenarios for telling memoir, and some wry, subtle commentary about Eastern European politics, social structures and class struggle all add to the intrigue of these three lives linked by fame and circumstance.


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"This utterly brilliant and absolutely delightful novel by Japanese-born Yoko Tawada, written in German, is by far the freshest take I've read on both foreignness and writing in I don't even know how long--possibly ever." -- Jennifer Croft - Best Translated Book Awards "But like those of Bridegroom, the animal characters of Memoirs pursue a hybrid existence, refusing to romanticize the state of nature." -- Christine Smallwood - Harper's Magazine "A writer of scrupulous intensity." -- Kirkus Reviews "Memoirs gives us an often funny and intimate perspective on what it must be like to be a sentient bear in an overwhelmingly human world." -- Clio Chang - New Republic "In 'Memoirs,' when a polar bear walks into a bookstore or a grocery store, there are no troubles stemming from a lack of opposable thumbs. As with Kafka's animal characters, we are freed to dislike them in the special way we usually reserve only for ourselves." -- Rivka Galchen - New York Times Magazine "A distinguished contribution to the unique paranoid style of the new European novel." -- Anis Shivani - The Brooklyn Rail "Her finest stories dramatize the fate of the individual in a mobilized world." -- Benjamin Lytal - The New York Sun "Tawada's stories agitate the mind like songs half remembered or treasure boxes whose keys are locked within." -- The New York Times "Tawada's accounts of alienation achieve a remarkable potency." -- The New York Times Book Review "As acrobatic with her writing as her polar bear subjects, Yoko Tawada walks a line between fantastical yet believable." -- World Literature Today "In chronicling the lives of three generations of uniquely talented polar bears, the fantastically gifted Yoko Tawada has created an unforgettable meditation on celebrity, art, incarceration, and the nature of consciousness. Tawada is, far and away, one of my favorite writers working today-thrilling, discomfiting, uncannily beautiful, like no one you have ever read before. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is Tawada at her best: humanity, as seen through the eyes of these bears, has never looked quite so stirringly strange." -- Laura van den Berg

Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960, moved to Hamburg when she was twenty-two, and then moved again to Berlin in 2006. She writes in both Japanese and German, and has received the Akutagawa Prize, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Goethe Medal. The translator of Yoko Tawada, Franz Kafka, and Robert Walser, among others, Susan Bernofsky is currently working on a biography of Walser.

General Fields

  • : 9780811225786
  • : New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • : New Directions Publishing Corporation
  • : November 2016
  • : 203mm X 137mm X 17mm
  • : United States
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Yoko Tawada
  • : Paperback
  • : 833.92
  • : 288