Three generations of polar bears navigate life as celebrities among humans.
Japanese author Tawada’s (The Bridegroom Was a Dog, 2012, etc.) latest novel revisits her themes of cultural alienation and ephemerality as she follows three generations—grandmother, mother, and son—of intrepid polar bears, each getting a separate chapter. The grandmother, a naïve but brilliant ex–circus performer who lives in the Soviet Union, writes an autobiography which becomes an overnight literary hit in Europe. Inadvertently, it leads to her political exile in Canada, where she's forced to abandon her native Russian, a language that once “remained at my side, touching soft spots within me.” Her daughter, Tosca, a former ballet dancer living in East Germany, joins the circus and becomes ensconced in an intimate relationship with her emotionally fragile trainer, Barbara—the two communicate secretly, while Barbara sleeps, in a “sphere situated halfway between the animal and human worlds.” As the familiar subtly descends into the bizarre, Tawada lithely undulates between past and present, subconscious and reality. In the final chapter, Tosca’s estranged son, Knut, spends his days playing with Matthias, his human keeper (and stand-in mother), before a captive audience at the Berlin Zoo. Soon after Matthias is forced to leave the zoo, Knut begins to receive nightly visits from Michael, a man “as smooth and elegant as a black panther,” whose hardships bear an uncanny resemblance to Knut’s. It’s uncertain whether Michael’s omnipresence is real, a vivid apparition—sometimes he watches Knut from a cloud, other times he speaks to him from a glowing computer screen—or perhaps Knut’s moral conscience personified. But this persistent mystery is what is so enchanting about Tawada’s writing. Her penetrating irony and deadpan surrealism fray our notions of home and combine to deliver another offbeat tale.
An absorbing work from a fascinating mind.