The Profound Empathy of Yoko Tawada


It was a gray and drizzly afternoon when Yoko Tawada and I crossed under a green-and-gold paifang to meet with mammals much larger than ourselves. Tawada had brought me to the Berlin Zoo because she had visited its famous polar bear, Knut, regularly while working on her 2014 novel, “Memoirs of a Polar Bear,” which will be published in English in November. The tale of the real-life Knut is at once moving and outlandish: His mother, Tosca, a retired performer from the German Democratic Republic circus, rejected Knut at birth, so he was raised instead by a male zookeeper “mother.” When an animal rights activist commented in a German newspaper that the zoo’s ethical responsibility was to let Knut die, children protested and the world fell in love with the poor animal. He became a celebrity, photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a cover of Vanity Fair, and lines to visit Knut formed daily for his scheduled appearances. “But by the time I knew him,” Tawada said, “it was later in his life, when people complained that he was less cute.”

“Memoirs” is actually three memoirs: the first narrated by Knut’s circus-performing Russian grandmother, the second by Knut’s mother and the final by Knut. Tawada wrote “Memoirs” in Japanese, then translated it into German on her own. The novel’s matriarch polar bear also begins her book in a language other then German. When the bear tells her publisher that she wants to begin writing in German herself, rather than having it translated from Russian, she is told that part of the appeal of her work is that it’s written in “her mother tongue.” She doesn’t like that. “I’ve never spoken with my mother,” she protests. Read more