Scrolling through my posts, you might wonder whether or not I actually read novels – I wouldn’t blame you for such a thought because, for the most part, I tend to read non-fiction, theoretical texts or novels that are assigned for seminars. However, whenever possible, I decided to try to pick away at a novel “for fun”. After class one day, I ended up chatting with one of my classmates and we both commented on how we feel more sane when we read outside of coursework or research, even if it is just a few pages.

With that mantra in mind, I tried to insert a little bit of leisure reading into my February and managed to get through two novels, one of these being Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada. Obviously, it is no longer February, so some time has lapsed since I finished this book – but I enjoyed it, so I felt it deserved some love on this blog.

“It felt strange to be writing an autobiography. In the past, I’d used language primarily for exporting an opinion. Now language remained at my side, touching soft spots within me. It felt as if I were doing something forbidden. I was ashamed of what I was doing and didn’t want anyone to read the story of my life. But when I saw the pages swarming with letters, I felt the urge to show them to someone.” 

Yoko Tawada is an interesting literary figure because she is Japanese, but writes in German, which often puts her into the “minor literature” category. I think that designation is a little suspect, since “minor literature” has a few different definitions; moreover, I will admit that I am not as familiar with Tawada’s work as some other readers may be. I was lucky enough to see her give a keynote lecture during a conference on Natsume Soseki a few years ago and, after that experience, I decided to take a peek at her writing. The text that she tends to be most known for, generally speaking, is The Bridegroom Was a Dog (though she has won awards for other texts) and I think the surrealism that was at the forefront of Bridegroom appears in Memoirs, though in a more restrained manner. I do appreciate the surrealism in her writing, because the surrealism oscillates between very overtly surreal elements (such as a polar bear being an emigre and becoming a famous author) and fairly normal day-to-day experiences in a zoo environment. The fact that Tawada can move so easily between such vastly different situations is really interesting and I do think it was a unique choice to juxtapose extremely surreal elements with the “real world” in the nonchalant, natural way that Tawada does. Within the logic of the narrative, it is no big deal that a polar bear is an author, or a ballet dancer, or just a normal polar bear in a zoo and I think that is a choice that calls for more unpacking.

“A snowfield blanketed my field of vision. Far and wide, no other color but white. My stomach was empty, hunger stabbed at it from the inside, and I soon caught the scent of a snow mouse. I couldn’t see the mouse, it was in the middle of digging an underground tunnel. The tunnel wasn’t so deep, I pressed my nose against the snowy ground, following the mousy scent, which was in motion. I couldn’t see a thing, but it was easy to pinpoint the mouse’s location. Here it is – time to pounce! I woke up. The white surface before me wasn’t a snowfield, it was a blank manuscript page.”

That being said, I did find some parts of the novel more compelling than others. As I’ve sort of hinted at, I think that Tawada’s writing is at its most stunning when she is working with surreal elements. Thus, the parts that were narrated by the polar bears were so well done and absolutely engrossing. However, the perspective switches to that of a human in the second section of the novel, which I felt was much less gripping than the voices of the polar bear. Since this second section did take up a decent amount of the novel, I did feel like the novel dragged a bit at this part. It was therefore a little bit of a rollercoaster while reading this because I went from absolutely loving the story, to sort of losing the moment as the story progressed. However, I do think it is a book that is worth reading and I am very happy that I was able to read it.

Thanks again to The Boxwalla for sharing this book with me in their February box!

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