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Cover for Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Memoirs of a Polar Bear

Yoko Tawada, Susan Bernofsky (Translated by)


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Other Editions of This Title:
Digital Audiobook (3/13/2017)


The Memoirs of a Polar Bear stars three generations of talented writers and performers—who happen to be polar bears

The Memoirs of a Polar Bear has in spades what Rivka Galchen hailed in the New Yorker as “Yoko Tawada’s magnificent strangeness”—Tawada is an author like no other. Three generations (grandmother, mother, son) of polar bears are famous as both circus performers and writers in East Germany: they are polar bears who move in human society, stars of the ring and of the literary world. In chapter one, the grandmother matriarch in the Soviet Union accidentally writes a bestselling autobiography. In chapter two, Tosca, her daughter (born in Canada, where her mother had emigrated) moves to the DDR and takes a job in the circus. Her son—the last of their line—is Knut, born in chapter three in a Leipzig zoo but raised by a human keeper in relatively happy circumstances in the Berlin zoo, until his keeper, Matthias, is taken away...

Happy or sad, each bear writes a story, enjoying both celebrity and “the intimacy of being alone with my pen.”

Praise For Memoirs of a Polar Bear

In this masterful performance of ‘otherness,’ Tawada pushes us to feel the humming possibility between how things appear and what they could be.
— Asymptote

Tawada masterfully transports the reader to this place approaching
transcendence, where language — so distinctly human, we suppose — brings
us into imaginative intimacy with another kind of being.
— Nathan Goldman - Full Stop

[T]he animal characters of Memoirs pursue a hybrid existence, refusing to romanticize the state of nature.

— Christine Smallwood - Harper's Magazine

A writer of scrupulous intensity.
— Kirkus Reviews

Memoirs gives us an often funny and intimate perspective on what it must be like to be a sentient bear in an overwhelmingly human world.

— Clio Chang - New Republic

In ‘Memoirs,’ when a polar bear walks into a bookstore or a grocery store, there are no troubles stemming from a lack of opposable thumbs. As with Kafka’s animal characters, we are freed to dislike them in the special way we usually reserve only for ourselves.
— Rivka Galchen - New York Times Magazine

For all the wonderful workings of plot and structure in Memoirs of the Polar Bear, what is truly affecting is Tawada's writing, which jumps off the page and practically sings.
— Juan Vidal - NPR

This novel is ''doubly translated'' in the sense that Yoko Tawada first wrote it in Japanese and then translated it herself into German, from whence it was re-crafted into English. It even boasts an additional layer of translating, as it were, since the first part of the book is narrated by a Russian-speaking bear. The story itself follows three generations of polar bears across the world in a powerful tale of both family and isolation.
— Lucas Iberico Lozada - Paste Magazine

The empathy for these magnificent bears, from the cruelty foisted on
them, of which they are unaware, to the love poured on them by those who
care for them just drips off the page.
— Press & Journal

Tawada bears out the truth that tongues can also bring inventive thoughts to vibrant life.
— Steven G. Kellman - The Boston Globe

A distinguished contribution to the unique paranoid style of the new European novel.
— Anis Shivani - The Brooklyn Rail

Ms Tawada brings her fine-nosed, soft-furred beasts to life... [Tawada] has a deadpan wit and disorienting mischief all her own, nimbly translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
— The Economist

Yoko Tawada’s whimsical ursine family saga expresses a powerful sense of justice.
— The Irish Times

"Something about the way Tawada writes – and Bernofsky’s beautiful
translation stays true to this – allows the reader to take the most
surreal and fantastical elements of the work completely seriously. Not
that this is an earnest text, on the contrary it’s deliciously whimsical
and playful; but this doesn’t detract from the importance of the
messages it carries. If anything, it’s proof that a different and
unexpected perspective can be the most enlightening of all: it’s through
the eyes of polar bears that we see humanity most clearly."
— Lucy Scholes - The National

Her finest stories dramatize the fate of the individual in a mobilized world.
— Benjamin Lytal - The New York Sun

Memoirs of a Polar Bear works on many levels, fizzing with ideas on exile, migration and love... questioning what it means to be human.

— The Spectator

Tawada asks us to see writing from an unusual perspective: it is like balancing on a ball, or hunting. Thus we’re forced to see writing not just as a cerebral art but a physical one, as well.
— Chad W. Post - Three Percent

The novel’s eldest bear describes writing as a ''''''''dangerous acrobatic stunt.'''''''' In Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Tawada executes this stunt with the effortless grace of a seasoned circus performer.

— Thomas Michael Duncan - Words Without Borders

As acrobatic with her writing as her polar bear subjects, Yoko Tawada walks a line between fantastical yet believable.
— World Literature Today

Tawada’s stories agitate the mind like songs half remembered or treasure boxes whose keys are locked within.
— The New York Times

Tawada’s accounts of alienation achieve a remarkable potency.
— The New York Times Book Review

Strange, exquisite book.
— The New Yorker

New Directions, 9780811225786, 288pp.

Publication Date: November 8, 2016

About the Author

Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960, moved to Hamburg when she was twenty-two, and then to Berlin in 2006. She writes in both Japanese and German and has received the Akutagawa, Lessing, Kleist, Noma, Adelbert von Chamisso and Tanizaki prizes as well as the Goethe Medal. In 2018 her novel The Emissary won the National Book Award.

The translator of Yoko Tawada, Franz Kafka, and Robert Walser, among others, Susan Bernofsky is currently working on a biography of Walser.