Tag Archives: Portobello Books

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

I have read more adventurous and innovative fiction since deciding to read a book a month by a woman in translation. And the topics covered appear to be serious issues for humans. Those in German seem especially concerned with world issues – climate change, refugees etc.

A major prize has been inaugurated since I began the project in September: the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. This month I look at the first winner:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, published by Portobello Books.

Three Stories

I could have called this post Why write about real bears? (as I did about people some time ago). The novel is formed of three stories each told by a different but related bear with origins in real life. I have included pictures of Knut, the youngest bear, born and brought up in Berlin Zoo.

The first bear, his grandmother, was born in Russia, sent to East Germany and then to Canada. She wrote her own biography after she was unable to perform in a circus.

The story of the second bear, her daughter Tosca, is told by her trainer as she tried to design an original and creative act for the bear in the circus. Tosca rejected her cub at birth so he is raised by a human, with whom he formed a close connection. Knut tells his own story as he grows up in Berlin zoo, the poster cub for conservation.

Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007

Each section opens with a physical sensation of bear-ness, and one we can relate to in our human-ness: curling in a foetal position, stretching, suckling. The stories are strange, dreamlike, prone to sudden shifts in the telling. It seems that the bears can communicate with humans, write and even, in the case of the first bear, move around in human society without arousing curiosity.

As with any story told from the point of view of an animal, it points to aspects of humans, especially about their relationships with the natural world. As a result this is also an unsettling book. What are the boundaries between humans and other animals, we find ourselves asking. Are we so different? What can we say about the way we care for animals, even, as in the case of Knut, for good motives. (In his case he was used to promote awareness of climate change.) And what about our care of the natural world? (Knut never saw the Arctic. What does it mean to keep a polar bear in temperate conditions?) Polar Bears are being made highly vulnerable by the shrinking of the ice caps in the Arctic.

Much of the subtext is concerned with communication and language, and raises questions about humans and language, especially as so many humans today need to use something that is not their native/mother tongue.

The first bear is told by her publisher’s representative that she should write in her mother tongue:

“What’s my mother tongue?”

“The language your mother speaks.”

“I’ve never spoken with my mother.”

“A mother is a mother even if you never speak with her.” (51)

And later her reminds her to write in her own language.

“My own language? I don’t know which language that is. Probably one of the North Pole languages.”

“I see, a joke. Russian is the most magnificent literary language in the world.”

“Somehow I don’t seem to know Russian any more.”

”That’s impossible! Write whatever you want, but in your own language please.” (57)

And to make a point, and to further her campaign to be relocated to Canada because it is colder than Berlin, she writes this for the publisher, in Russian.

“All penguin marriages are alike, while every polar bear marriage is different.” (58)

Confusions of language and communication abound in the three novellas, much as they must do for any migrant. And we must assume that Yoko Tawada has some insight into this, having moved to Berlin from Tokyo in her 20s.

Warwick Prize for Women in Translation

The prize was introduced in 2017. Here is the announcement of The Memoirs of a Polar Bear on the website. I welcome this award as it will raise people’s awareness of women in fiction (woefully small numbers of novels published by women and tiny proportion of those chosen for translation). And I’m pleased that it is my alma mater hosting it. I did a history degree there about half a century ago, which required the study of foreign languages. The tradition of promoting foreign language use continues.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, first published in German in 2014, Etuden im Schnee. Published in English in 2016 by Portobello. 252pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Winner of the Warwick Inaugural Women in Translation Prize (2017)

Yoko Tawada May 2016

Related Links

An interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky, about her work in the LARB.

Previous posts in this series include

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated from the German by Jen Calleja.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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Photo credits: Knut with Thomas Dorflein, in Berlin Zoo April 2007. Photo by Christopher Pratt via WikiCommons

Author picture by G.Garitan from May 2016 at a conference in the library Falada at Reims.via WikiCommons

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

What is the most pressing and intractable problem facing humans today? My answer would be the responses to migration, to the movements of peoples. I mean racism and the other abuses practised on vulnerable peoples. And I mean the responses of governments and especially of the EU to the people who arrive seeking asylum. Go, Went, Gone confronts these issues.

The story of Go, Went, Gone

Richard lives in Berlin, in what used to be called East Berlin, but in his lifetime it has been reunited with the rest of the city. He has just retired from his post as Professor of Classical Philology, and now faces decisions about how he will spend his time, his life. The description of his dilemmas about confronting retirement is excellent in itself.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall, May 2014

Richard’s attention is drawn to a group of refugees who are causing the authorities some worries as they are on hunger strike and then by camping out in Orienplatz. He visits their camp and notices that they have created a community. He decides to investigate, as he might have approached an intellectual question in his professional academic life. He reads up about migration and draws up questions for the migrants and goes to interview them. Here he reflects on what he reads after he has heard some of the men’;s stories.

Much of what Richard reads on this November day several weeks after his retirement are things he’s known most of his life, but today, thanks to this bit of additional information he’s acquired, it all seems to come together in new, different ways. (142)

And when he combines his reading with his previous studies he notices something about the world.

When he considers the path the Berbers may have taken: from the Caucasus by way of Anatolia and the Levant all the way to Egypt and ancient Libya, then later into modern day Niger (and then back from Niger to modern-day Libya and across the sea to Rome and Berlin), it’s nearly a perfect three-quarter circle. This movement of people across the continents has already been going on for thousands of years, and never once has this movement halted. There were commerce, and wars, and expulsions; people often followed the animals they owned in search of water and food, they fled from droughts and plagues, went in search of gold, salt, or iron, or else their faith in their own god could be pursued only in the diaspora. There was ruin and then transformation and reconstruction. There were better roads and worse ones, but never did the movement cease. (142-3)

Never once has this movement halted, never did the movement cease.

As soon as Richard hears the stories of one man after another, the intellectual becomes the personal. He becomes absorbed in their lives, begins to make a difference through language teaching and donations, and becomes a somewhat naïve witness to the treatment of the refugees by the authorities.

My reactions

I was quickly absorbed by this book. The stories of the refugees are full of impact, not least because surviving the fearsome passage across the Mediterranean leads only to yet more suffering. Many of the men who have landed, usually in Italy, find themselves a great deal worse off than before they made their decision to leave, and with little prospect for improving their lives. Everything is a problem: shelter, clothing, work, communications with authorities, language, transport, neighbours, money …

As he learns more, Richard reaches back into what he knew best, classical studies, and makes connections with this knowledge. The centrality of the Mediterranean emerges in all stories. Richard reflects too on parallels with the reunification of Germany and the changes that came with this, especially for those who had lived in the former GDR. German history, however, has little significance for the migrants and they know nothing of Hitler and the atrocities of the 1940s or the division of Germany that followed the Nazis.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, May 2014

The meanings of boundaries of all kinds surface again and again. Humans seem to separate themselves from others to create enclaves; they identify and differentiate themselves from others in ways that cause huge problems. Above all, the accident of birth determines a human’s legal rights, and those who were born in the wrong places suffer over and over. The project of the EU does not help those who are born outside it.

The movement of peoples, and the dividing of peoples, the creation of boundaries to try to halt them have been going on for thousands of years. What arrogance it is that the EU, and German citizens (or any citizens) believe they can stop it. It seems to me that attempts to breach those boundaries are what it is to be human. Towards the end of the book Richard reflects on the new boundaries as he watches a standoff between the refugees and the police in Spandau.

So a border, Richard thinks, can suddenly become visible, it can suddenly appear where a border never used to be; battles fought in recent years on the borders of Libya, or of Morocco or Niger, are now taking place in the middle of Berlin-Spandau. Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border has suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.

At the New Year’s Eve party, standing with his friend Peter on his girlfriend’s balcony gazing out into the darkness, Peter told him that for the Incas the centre of the universe wasn’t a point but a line where two halves of the universe met. Is this scene unfolding before Richard’s eyes at the entrance to the asylum seekers’ residence? And are the two groups of people facing off here something like the two halves of a universe that actually belong together, but whose separation is nonetheless irrevocable? (209)

Richard’s experiences remind us that people can learn and change. His interest in and generosity to the men he meets reminds us of our individual responsibilities and possibilities. He draws in many of his friends into his activities. I also liked this book because it ended in a picnic, or rather a joyous barbeque.

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, first published in English translation in 2017 by Portobello Books. 283 pp

Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go, Went, Gone was the Winner of the English Pen translate awards, which, by the way, included 50% of women writers and translated. You can find the complete list here.

On Bookword

I am reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation every month: here are a couple of recommendations from those I have already included.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang

It seems that to be a vegetarian is a challenge. I remember in the 1970s in Coventry where I was teaching the children at lunchtime would ask why I had a special meal, and then try and catch me out because it appeared to them to be unbelievable that I chose never to eat meat. I bet you eat fish and chips. No. Smokey Bacon crisps? No. And on Christmas Day, what do you eat then? I bet you eat turkey! This was usually delivered with a triumphant ‘caught you’ kind of voice. But I haven’t eaten meat for nearly 40 years. Not even on Christmas Day. Then for me as now in Korea for the main character in this novel. When Yeong-hye announced she would no longer eat meat it was regarded as a social transgression. Several people thought that her behaviour must be corrected.

247 Veg cover

The Story

The story of Yeong-hye is told by three different people: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister. Each one has a different view or need for her. Each one carries the point of view for a section.

The first section, called The Vegetarian, is narrated in the first person by Yeong-hye’s husband. He believes she is mediocre, malleable and no challenge to him. He married her on this basis, and her announcement that she will no longer eat meat brings unwanted changes to his life. He resents this for he sees her role only in terms of himself. In one of the most shocking episodes of the book the husband recounts, in a bloodless way, how Yeong-hye’s father strikes her twice and forces meat into her mouth, sparking her first psychotic episode. She cuts her wrist and is hospitalised. The husband makes no effort to intervene, does nothing to prevent the violence.

The brother-in-law is a video artist who becomes obsessed with painting her body with flowers. In the second section, Mongolian Mark, he moves from being a sympathetic person, the one who carried Yeong-hye to hospital, through a fixation upon her birth mark to painting flowers on her body and recording her movements. Finally he paints and records himself as well and the results are predictable and not a little erotic. But when they are discovered it is Yeong-hye who again goes to hospital.

Her sister, Kim In-hye, visits the hospital in the section called Flaming Trees. Kim In-hye feels guilt because she did not prevent violence towards her younger sister in childhood as well as in adulthood. Although her marriage has finished because of the painting the body episode, Kim In-hye cares for her sister. She pays for the treatment and she visits periodically. Now it seems that nothing can be done for her, Yeong-hye wishes to become a tree. She does not want this life, but another.

Themes

There is rage in this book, resistance and revolt against conformity. It is also about the body and its meaning in relationships and to the individual. Expressing oneself physically is only allowed in certain ways, and not eating meat, cutting oneself, wishing to become a tree, hiding out in the woods – these things cannot be accepted from Yeong-hye. It is her sister who witnesses the second shocking attempt, this one by the hospital staff, to force-feed Yeong-hye to save her life. She questions whether Yeong-hye’s wishes should not prevail, even if she dies.

Yeong-hye’s only explanation for her vegetarianism is that she had a dream and she pursues her dream to become a tree as the novel progresses. Her decision provokes others to act upon her and her body. The more she withdraws from the world the more she is imprisoned within it: in hospital wards, by strait jackets and drugs and even trussed like a bird for roasting to transport her away from the psychiatric hospital.

While we have three voices observing and commenting on Yeong-hye, her voice is rarely heard except in a small voice or an animalistic howl.

The writing

Here is the opening paragraph of the novel. The words are Yeong-hye’s husband’s. So much information, so little affection or admiration.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help notice her shoes – the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers – neither fast nor slow, striding not mincing. (3).

Later the writing becomes quite sensual. Here are the brother-in-law’s observations when he has first painted her body with flowers.

This was the body of a beautiful young woman, conventionally an object of desire, and yet it was a body from which all desire had been eliminated. But this was nothing so crass as carnal desire, not for her – rather, or so it seemed, what she had renounced was the very life her body represented. The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering … (85)

The final scenes are vivid, disturbing and haunting.

The translator, Deborah Smith, has done an excellent job.

247 mbi2016-logoShortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. It was an opportunity to read a book by a woman in translation. I have never read a book by a Korean author before.

 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang published by Portobello Books in 2015. 183pp

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

 

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