The Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, named after a 19th-century French poet who wrote in German, is bestowed annually on authors who write in German but grew up speaking another language. Yoko Tawada received the award in 1996, having produced more than 20 books in German and almost as many in her native Japanese.
Tawada’s ambilingual facility is result of the fact that the Tokyo-born writer moved to Hamburg in 1982, at age 22, to attend graduate school, eventually earning a doctorate in German literature in Zurich. Based on her novels, those experiences seem to have made her particularly sensitive to the porousness of borders, between languages and nations, between characters, and between dreams and reality. In “Memoirs of a Polar Bear,’’ translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, she challenges the discreteness of biological species. The novel is a shaggy bear story, one that asks us to accept as perfectly natural the fact that a bear attends conferences and goes to the movies.
Franz Kafka is the modern master of animal fiction. In the first of three sections in Tawada’s novel, an ursine narrator reads several Kafka stories, including “Investigations of a Dog” and “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.” She is critical of “A Report to an Academy,” in which an ape lectures scientists on how he assimilated to human ways, complaining that: “It’s ridiculous the way he imitates human beings.” Nevertheless, the polar bear is herself engaging in the distinctively human activity of writing her autobiography. She recounts how a dancing injury forced her, the star of a Moscow circus, to retire. In the midst of the Cold War, she flees to West Germany, and, because she finds it too warm in Berlin, migrates again, to Toronto. As soon as she has written each chapter, in Russian, an editor grabs it, pays her, and has it translated into German. The book becomes a bestseller, its author a furry celebrity.
The second section of the novel focuses on the polar bear’s daughter, Tosca, who performs in a circus in East Berlin. The point of view fluctuates between Tosca and an animal trainer named Barbara who is able to communicate telepathically with other species. Tosca and Barbara fall in love with each other and stage a circus act called “Kiss of Death,” in which Tosca licks a sugar cube from Barbara’s tongue and, as Tosca explains, “her human soul had passed bit by bit into my bear body.”
The third and most satisfying section tells the story of Tosca’s endearing son, Knut. Abandoned by Tosca, Knut grows up in the Berlin Zoo nurtured by an employee named Matthias with whom he develops a trans-species, loving bond. We follow Knut’s progress from infancy as he learns to use the pronoun “I,” swim, and read. He becomes the zoo’s star attraction and an environmental champion. Originally titled “Etüden im Schnee’’ (“Studies in Snow’’), Tawada’s novel concludes as snow falls over Berlin and Knut, bereft of ties to man and beast, dreams of his ancestral home at the North Pole.
A bear’s perspective defamiliarizes the world when Knut regrets that a woman “smeared some chemical with a strange, sour odor under her arms.” The spectacle of bears who write provides Tawada with a metaphor for her own craft when Tosca’s mother observes that: “Writing was a more dangerous acrobatic stunt than dancing atop a rolling ball.” And Tawada surely has her own translingualism in mind when, trying to drink from a deep bowl, baby Knut gets a cramp in his tongue and almost suffocates. He learns that: “It was possible to be killed by one’s own tongue.” But Tawada bears out the truth that tongues can also bring inventive thoughts to vibrant life.
MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR
By Yoko Tawada
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
New Directions, 252 pp., paperback, $16.95
Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth’’ and “The Translingual Imagination.’’