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Book Title: 雪練習生 [Yuki No Renshūsei]|
The author of the book: Yōko Tawada
Date of issue: 2011
ISBN 13: 9784104361045
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 6.49 MB
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Reader ratings: 6.8
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Gabriel García Márquez once wrote about the publication of his first story. He left it with the receptionist at El Espectador, too abashed to meet directly with the editor Eduardo Zalamea. Two weeks later he chanced to discover his story featured prominently in the publication. Elated, he desperately searched in vain for five centavos in order to purchase a copy. His dejection was alleviated only by the last minute acquisition of a cast-off copy of El Espectador begged from a stranger who was done with the paper. The author also admits to mixed feelings. On the one hand he was now a published author basking in the admiration of his friends. On the other hand, he was able to cast a critical eye on his story and he was realizing that many of his admirers had either misunderstood his intentions or had only given the piece a cursory reading. As was customary, he received no payment for the story. (The New Yorker, Oct. 6, 2003, p.101-105)
I wondered if Tawada had this anecdote in mind as she wrote MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR. The conceit of this slim three-part novel is that a Russian polar bear has the sudden compulsion to write her autobiography. After she begins, she realizes her need for an audience (she was an ex-circus performer, after all). She approaches a former admirer turned seedy publisher, named Sea Lion. Sea Lion surreptitiously adds a title to the work and publishes it as the first in a series. Of course, no payment is forthcoming to the author. The polar bear is outraged; but succumbs to pressure, and continues to submit new chapters. The memoir is translated into German, again, without her permission, and suddenly becomes popular and controversial. She receives an invitation to participate in a project to plant orange trees — in Siberia.
This book is gently satirical, and, I suspect, filled with insider jokes I failed to recognize. The bear's charm lies in her mix of bearish proclivities and human-like behaviors. Sea Lion easily diverts her outrage by offerings of chocolate (undoubtedly obtained on the Russian black market). She writes impassively about her circus training, including the cruel footwear her trainer Ivan used to force her to walk on two legs. An overachiever, she injures herself during dance practice, and is given an administrative assignment. Her duties include attending conferences. At first she revels in this public showcase. As in the circus, she has a captive audience. Her outspoken views are no more outrageous or substantive than the themes of the conferences. Later, she becomes disillusioned, even taking the risk of refusing a panel discussion: “Panel discussions are like rabbits — usually what happens during such a session is that further sessions are declared necessary — and if nothing is done to prevent this, they multiply so quickly and become so numerous that it is no longer possible to provide a sufficient number of participants, even if we all devote most of each day to these sessions.” (p.15) It's a very human observation, followed up by a rueful observation that as a polar bear, she cannot fall back on the usual excuses, a bad cold or the deaths of fictional relatives.
Political satire and authorial angst are interwoven with preternatural events. I found these dream-like episodes the most affecting parts of the book. In part one the polar bear imagines her long dead trainer Ivan standing next to her. The smell of him, the sound of him, feel real in that moment. She writes: “Ivan, dead within me for so many years, came back to life because I was writing about him.” (p.12) Part two begins narrated by a gifted animal trainer named Barbara. Barbara develops an intimate bond with the bear's daughter, Tosca. Barbara's sleep morphs into a communion with Tosca, as if they are dreaming the same dream simultaneously. The narrative becomes liquid, gradually flowing into Tosca's voice, until memories become the final reality. The ending of part two is haunting. Part three is narrated by Tosca's son Knut, born in a Berlin zoo. It is perhaps the most poignant of the three stories, tracking Knut's birth and nurturing by Matthias his keeper, constant companion, and mentor. Knut becomes deeply attached to Matthias, and when he becomes too big to have a human companion, becomes deeply depressed until he meets a ghostly presence named Michael to whom he confides his secret yearning for freedom. It is the flowering of dreams he's had since infancy when his grandmother would appear to him: “I'm not only your grandmother, I'm also your great-grandmother and your great-great-grandmother. I am the superimposition of numerous ancestors. From the front you see only a single figure, but behind me is an infinitely long line of ancestors. I am not one, I am many.” (p.214)
This is a strange book. The three parts are very different in style and voice. It is almost a collection of three separate novellas. Without doubt, readers will have a favorite among the three. Knut's story, the last, is certainly the most accessible. I was drawn to the book by a review in The Economist. Having read it, however, I had mixed feelings. Was the conceit of the sentient polar bear sufficient to carry the reader through three stories? I felt I was missing nuances the author had in mind.
Interview with the translator, Susan Bernofsky
The cover art by Alyssa Cartwright is charming and captures the imaginative spirit of the book. This website gives other examples of her art.
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Read information about the authorYōko Tawada (多和田葉子 Tawada Yōko, born March 23, 1960) is a Japanese writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. She writes in both Japanese and German.
Tawada was born in Tokyo, received her undergraduate education at Waseda University in 1982 with a major in Russian literature, then studied at Hamburg University where she received a master's degree in contemporary German literature. She received her doctorate in German literature at the University of Zurich. 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.
Tawada's Missing Heels received the Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1991, and The Bridegroom Was a Dog received the Akutagawa Prize in 1993. In 1999 she became writer-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for four months. Her Suspect on the Night Train won the Tanizaki Prize and Ito Sei Literary Prize in 2003.
Tawada received the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize in 1996, a German award to foreign writers in recognition of their contribution to German culture, and the Goethe Medal in 2005.
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