While reading Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear I was immediately reminded on another recent read: The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle. Both stories involve bears which step into very human roles or interact with humans in a very human manner, but Kotzwinkle’s novel is much funnier.
in both novels the bear is involved with writing: in one the bear actually writes its memoirs but in the other a bear in the wild finds another writer’s work hidden under a tree and passes it off as his (its?) own.
Except for involvement with conferences in the early part of Memoirs, the polar bears in Tawada’s novel tend to be in realistic environments for a bear: zoos and circuses. However, in Kotzwinkle’s novel the bear is accepted into human society, dresses in custom suits, dines in fine restaurants, sits in on late-night talk shows, and even has an affair with his publicist. Although it’s all very unbear-like, the bear still recognizes the inherent difficulties of being a bear in Manhattan (like fitting into pret-à-porte)..
Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a serious work, albeit flawed; The Bear Went Over the Mountain is a lot of fun and possibly much better written. Read them both and make sure you put both authors on your near-future reading list.
Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Japanese/German author Yoko Tawada is a study into both what it is to be human and also into the often strained relationships between humans and other mammals. It narrates the history (memoirs?) of three generations of polar bears and the humans they interact with, whether in the circus, at the zoo, or at an international conference. The polar bears themselves are at one time creatures of the great northern wilds and at another time balancing on a large blue ball and even, without any anthropomorphic explanation, excelling at a corporate “desk” job and attending important conferences around the world.
Who knew that a polar bear could write a best-seller based on memoirs from the circus?
Although I felt the polar bear vs. homo sapiens analogy was overly extended and therefore somewhat tedious, I did enjoy the third part of the novel where an abandoned new born polar bear is raised in the zoo by a trio of quite praiseworthy humans. What made me stop and think was when the bear had grown too large and was summarily assigned to an enclosure, losing the freedom and intellectual stimulation it had enjoyed while growing up and losing the interaction with humans who truly cared.
Do humans enjoy other species only as long as they’re cute and cuddly?
Was this an indictment against zoos or they way the dominant species—human—treats other species? Several times during the novel it is apparent that there may be no right or wrong answer to how animals are treated but it is increasingly obvious that animals, both higher and lower animals, have rights too.
This idea of animals having human rights is in the news today with chimpanzees being defended for their rights in the courts.
I expect that there is a reasonable compromise somewhere between the Frank Buck world and the vegan/Jainists chomping grass and skipping over tiny ants. Circuses are rightfully closing, zoos are becoming less a penitentiary for animals and more a learning habitat that is instrumental in preserving species. Polar bears have become symbolic of the destruction of the planet through man-made global warming.
But who knows, maybe polar bears will write the final memoirs of the late, not-so-great human species.