A glacial is thousands of years of cold temperatures and glacial advancement. The last glacial ended 15,000 years ago, and we’re told the epoch we’re living in now, the Holocene, is an inter-glacial period.
But the unprecedented speed with which the ice has disappeared over the last 100 years gives us pause.
Humans as a species are having an effect on global temperature and the ice. It is undeniable now there’s at least a chance the change is irreversible. So, some ask the academy and society at large to admit the dawn of the Anthropocene, an era in which the glaciers may never return.
The Holocene was so named for the most powerful force of the epoch, the sun. The Anthropocene declares we, humans, anthros, have surpassed the sun in our ability to affect the planet. Some conservatives and capitalists who don’t want to take responsibility for what’s happening as anything different from anything that has happened in the past, say to call it the beginning of the Anthropocene is jumping to conclusions.
The story of three generations of a family are nothing to a glacier.
But historical records exist, and the stories your great-grandma told your grandma, your mom and you about the world are passed down. The oral tradition which has guided the entirety of human advancement for generations passes information down hundreds and thousands of years.
What if you could interview generations living in the Arctic Circle over the last several decades – this critical time – about what they’ve both seen first hand, and the stories they’ve been told for centuries?
There’ve been some humans who have gone northward a little ways and made some progress, but undeniably the greatest authority in the vast glaciated north are the polar bears who have roamed the ice and seas for thousands of years.
The last 100 years has brought them into contact with us humans, which is how it is possible, Yoko Tawada informs us prosaically in Memoirs of a Polar Bear, that we come to know them just a little bit.
It’s a gorgeous expansion of that little bit that makes this a magical novel.
This slim, beautiful biography of three generations of polar bears living not at the North Pole, but among us – in Russia, Germany and Canada between the 1960’s and today – uses an ethereal, intermingling of human and bear to tell it. In Tawada’s work, exceptionally sensitive humans and very particular bears can communicate profoundly and with feeling.
It amazes me how she creates this delicate balance between what we can understand and what we cannot and what the bears can and cannot grasp. The intersection of human and bear is deliberately an imperfect and haunting space, like any introduction between species at an equal level demands. It makes this book completely inhabitable.
Yoko Tawada was born on March 23, 1960, in Tokyo and studied Russian literature at Waseda. She moved to Germany when she was 22 years old in 1982 – seven years before the fall of the wall.
In her new country, she received a Masters in contemporary German Literature at Hamburg before completing a Doctorate in German literature at Zurich. She writes in German and Japanese and in 1987, she published Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts—Anata no iru tokoro dake nani mo nai (A Void Only Where You Are), a collection of poems in a German and Japanese bilingual edition
And then the wall fell.
I have not read anything else by Tawada except this novel, which comes to me because New Directions published it and Susan Bernofsky translated it. But her wholeness of composition is staggering.
The three parts of this novel are incredibly different and yet weave together perfectly to tell not only the stories of the bears but of all of us as we have gone through what we have experienced these last 60 years.
The grandmother polar bear who begins the story has no name. She mothers Tosca, who not only has a name, but has the ability to engage and relate across continents. Tosca in turn births Knut, whom she rejects, so he is raised by us. It is an amazing idea.
The history of the Soviet Era is held in the grandmother, then the era of change – the end of the Cold War – in the telling of Tosca, and the sad withering of our culture into a global conglomeration bereft of deep and important memories of our past in Knut, a real-life polar bear, who captured the hearts of Europeans and Russians just ten years ago, in the Aughts, and whose history you should only google, read and learn about after you’ve read this novel.
The connection between us and the bears, that of our Class, mammalia, is here explored with compassion and interspecies love. I was completely enamored with Tawada’s use of what it means to be a mammal as a means of connecting us to another species as opposed to separating us from other mammalia. We don’t have kinship with bears, we have mammalian-ship with them. Genius.
But more than capturing what little exists of the understanding between us and the polar bears, Tawada has captured the predominant feeling of post-neoliberalism: the feeling of no place, of having no memory that will last, of how much history is disappearing into the sands, or melted seas, of time.
This is a visionary expression of a contemporary crisis that few have yet fully grasped: placelessness. The placelessness of those whose place is being taken away and the placelessness of those who have lost the ability to feel place – bears and humans respectively – is metaphoric for much human experience in the last 60 years: immigrants, refugees, citizenship, culture.
The bears as metaphors for a sensible understanding of what has actually been going on, remind me of the metaphors for what actually existed that reside in the works of oppressed Soviet writers. Amidst climate change deniers and global warming warriors, Tawada takes a sensitive approach to make us at least observe faithfully.