On Writing About Writing About Writing

Review of Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada as translated by Susan Bernofsky

/ by Sharmila Cohen

Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a refreshingly absurd novel that tells the story of three generations of polar bears who all move within human society. The first chapter is written from the perspective of the grandmother, a former circus performer turned memoirist from the Soviet Union who immigrates to West Berlin and then to Canada. Chapter two focuses on her daughter, Tosca, a trained dancer turned circus performer in the DDR. Chapter three features Knut, Tosca’s son whom she abandoned, and whose story is based on the true story of the famous polar bear from the Berlin Zoo. Tawada’s masterful storytelling immediately suspends our disbelief and allows us, as readers, to accept the fact that bears are capable of complex and sophisticated thought, enjoying literature, and becoming successful writers and performers, without question.


Simply by knowing the (English) title and having this basic knowledge of the plot, it’s already clear that a deep exploration of identity is among the overarching themes of the book. What is remarkable about Tawada’s writing is that there is never just one thing to unpack, when looking at particular idea in the text – each sentence is fully saturated with meaning. In terms of identity alone, the story addresses immigration (and exile), otherness, race, political boundaries, social and familial roles and expectations, destiny, language, sense of self, relationships, death, and even species. As “Memoirs” would suggest, writing and its relationship to identity is explored extensively throughout the novel.

The first polar bear describes the act: “Writing: a spooky activity. Staring at the sentence I’ve just written makes me dizzy. Where am I at this moment? I’m in my story — gone.” She is disoriented just by looking at the text she’s written, already indicating that writing (and reading) has led to a change in her state of being. She inhabits the text, and even her existence is put into question, she’s “gone,” despite the fact that the text she is writing is her autobiography. Later in the chapter, she decides to use writing as a means of taking charge of her destiny:

… a steering wheel is just what I need to steer my destiny. For this, I’ll have to keep writing my autobiography … I won’t write about the past, I’ll write about all the things that are still going to happen to me. My life will unfold in exactly the way I’ve set it down on the page.


Her future will be determined by what she writes, again giving writing a formative power over one’s destiny. Reality is not only what happens, but also what is said about it. This is how she takes the wheel, but still, is she the sole decider of her fate? She immediately realizes that she can’t write her future based on her past experiences alone – that would just lead to repetition – so she uses books, copying out passages for use in her own text. As such, her future is based on what she’s read, on the knowledge and experience of others.


In the next chapter, her daughter Tosca finds herself unable to write anything, since she has already been described as a character in her mother’s autobiography. In this way, she feels trapped in the fate laid out for her and the writing that defines her. In turn, Barbara, the animal trainer with whom she is to perform, offers to write her life story for her, so that she can escape her mother’s story. And then Barbara inhabits Tosca’s life and being, writing Tosca’s story in the first person. Once again, not only does Tosca need the help of outside sources to take charge of her fate, but Barbara does, as well: she finds that she needs to practice telling her own story, in order to tell Tosca’s. When Barbara apologizes for talking about herself instead of writing Tosca’s life story, Tosca responds: “That’s all right. First you should translate your own story into written characters. Then your soul will be tidy enough to make room for a bear.” And now we turn again – just as Barbara inhabits Tosca, she must also make room for Tosca to inhabit her. Here, too, writing plays a role in identity – this time in the form of translation. Translating the story into written characters gives it a new, separate form – this seems to also be another form of disappearing. Just as Tosca’s mother was “gone” when she inhabited her text, Barbara must write her own story to clear out her soul. The act of writing as taking a piece of identity and putting it somewhere else.


Towards the end of her chapter, Tosca says: “I don’t wish to write about the life of my son, as if I could take credit for it.” Here we see writing as a sort of possession or ownership. When the author is given “credit,” then she is also given a form of power over his fate. Still, this external force over one’s written identity – or identity formed through writing – seems inescapable, as Knut’s story opens with his zoo caretakers recording his measurements, shortly followed by multiple journalists coming to see him.


It would be a mistake not to point out that this book itself is a translation – that is, writing about writing about writing. As we have learned here, translation gives a story a new form, in this case, one that was executed seamlessly, providing for us an English rendering of the beautiful and sophisticated language of the original. And though the memoirist of chapter one finds it “a great misfortune” that her translator was talented, turning her “bearish sentences into artful literature that soon was praised in a celebrated West German newspaper,” Bernofsky’s dexterity as a translator is a great gift to anyone who can’t read the original German. If writing is as relevant to identity as this book has shown us, then the translator’s role is equally as relevant to the identity of the book. And she herself embodies one of the major themes of the story.

Sharmila Cohen

lives in Berlin, where she initially moved on a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate poetry in translation and now works as a freelance writer, translator, and editor. She is a co-founding editor of the translation press Telephone Books. Her work can be found in Harper’s Magazine, Circumference,and Epiphany, among other places.