Having just finished Toko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo (just released by Portobello Books) and having mixed feelings about its narrative style, I felt compelled to also check out Tawada’s other novel in English translation – Memoirs of a Polar Bear. The difference? This one, she wrote in German, as opposed to Japanese.
Fittingly then, the events very much centre around Germany in terms of setting, as we follow three generations of ‘captive’ polar bears. The first a writer, forced to flee from Soviet Russia as she pursues a writing career. The second a member in a circus show. The third – and for my money, the most interesting of the three tales – part of a zoo.
In each tale, the lines between bear and human deliberately blur – is it really a bear telling these stories, or a human in bear form? Or is it all some great big metaphor? Those that don’t appreciate areas of ambiguity will find this narrative conceit immensely perplexing, especially in the first two parts where the prose is almost always dense with meaning, politically charged and very much in service of making depth-laden observations on the human condition.
I have to confess, the third tale – with its cute, child’s-eye (and bear’s eye) view of the world that really charmed me the most. The most ‘bear-like’ of the three tales, its narrator’s slowly dawning consciousness of the environment of the zoo around him (and the keepers that tend to him) is so beautifully, elegantly drawn that I found myself powering through this section in a single sitting; such was the charm with which it is written. It even transitions from the third to first person halfway through – one of many games of ‘viewing’ the novel places with. It takes being placed in the mind of an animal to view ourselves for what we truly are – simply another kind of animal. Are we the ones looking through the cage and into the zoo? Or is the bear looking out at us and our equally perplexing behaviour?
Part of me wonders whether the book isn’t perhaps a case of slightly illusive marketing – dressing the novel up as accessible, cutesy ‘animal-story’ fiction, ready to slide in next to all those Japanese cat books. Or maybe there’s something to be said about its inherent human/animal narrative hybrid, a new twist on the kind of sheep-related stuff Murakami has been peddling as oh so quirky for years. The book was pushed heavily by the likes of Foyles around Christmas, and it’s easy to see why with its big flash of snowy white on the cover and the cutesy, rounded font they used. But maybe the message didn’t connect in the way they wanted, as so far it seems commercial success here in the UK has been so-so: the book has only seven reviews on UK Amazon at time of writing.
The more literary end of contemporary Japanese fiction is a fascinating beast. Everyone dreams of the next Murakami – a mega-seller to sweep all others aside and cross over into true bestseller status. Memoirs of a Polar Bear is far too subtle for that, too complex in its tones and shades. But given time, it reveals its delights all the same – Tawada’s skill as a writer is undoubtable, and at its best, this is a tale not easily forgotten. The outer casing might be all bear, but inside, the beating heart is 100% human, and that’s why it resonates so very deeply.