Memoirs of a polar bear


A decade ago, on a visit to Berlin, I bought a small Steiff bear to remind me of the city I used to live in, and of Knut.

Knut, if you don’t know already, was a baby polar bear in Berlin Zoo. Rarely has so much hope, love and faith been invested in one so small. We all loved him.

This is his story, and the story of his mother and grandmother. And what an extraordinary story it is.

Yoko Tawada starts with the grandmother. She is a circus star in the Soviet Union who ends up in West Berlin. And she is writing her memoirs, which is no easy task, as she is not taken seriously, as an immigrant and as a (female?) animal:


Then she moves on to Canada, where her daughter Tosca is born. But Tosca’s Danish lover is keen to build the revolution and so off they go, back to East Berlin, where she becomes a circus star – and gives birth to Knut:


The story ends tragically. Knut’s generation are no longer expected to perform in circuses, but provide environmental education. In free post-wall Berlin, they are still expected to perform none the less, and still imprisoned:


This book is splendidly strange – the borders between humans and animals, male and female, fiction and reality are constantly shifting. Tawada takes “based on a true story” to a whole new level. Like, Olga Gjasnowa, she wrote in German, though she was born outside Germany. But I read it in English, because of the translator, Susan Bernofsky. I wasn’t disappointed – Memoirs of a Polar Bear is fantastic. Get the brand new paperback edition from Portobello Books.


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Posted in books, gender, translation
One comment on “Memoirs of a polar bear
  1. […] ever Warwick Prize for Women in Translation short list presents tough competition (not least with Memoirs of A Polar Bear and Second Hand Time) but The Coast Road (The Gallery Press, 2016) is extraordinary. A host of […]

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