an extract from
Memoirs of a Polar Bear
Out next month from NEWÂ DIRECTIONS.
I hardly had any luggage with me, as it was to be such a short trip. The airplane smelled of melting plastic, and sitting in it didn’t make me feel any calmer, as the seat was built along narrow lines. The plane landed at Berlin-Schönefeld, and I was met by policemen who appeared to have been waiting for me the entire time. They got into a van with me and took me to a train station, where they deposited me in a dainty little train headed for West Berlin. When the border guard came through, I showed him all the paperwork I’d been given. The train was strangely empty, and landscapes empty of human beings flew by outside. They were deformed by the thick glass of the window. A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence: “I am going into exile.” Suddenly I grasped my situation. Someone had devised this escape for me, to save me from a danger I hadn’t known existed. Red plastic spectacles appeared before my eyes, it was a woman, still young, perhaps twenty or so. She asked me something, and I answered in Russian: “I don’t understand.” Then the spectacles asked in shaky Russian if I was Russian. Of course not, but how was I supposed to explain to her what I am. While I was hunting for the words, she said: “Oh, I see, you’re a member of an ethnic minority, is that it? I wrote a term paper about the human rights of ethnic minorities, and it’s the first time I got a good grade. It was a really wonderful experience. Long live minorities!” The plastic spectacles sat down next to me while I was still wrestling with the confusion in my head. Was my clan part of an ethnic minority? It’s certainly possible that we are fewer in number than the Russians, at least in the cities, but high up in the North, many more of our sort exist in Nature than Russians. “Minorities are fabulous!” the spectacles exclaimed, apparently having skidded into some sort of manic state. She wouldn’t leave me alone, kept bombarding me with questions, such as where I was going and whether I had any friends in West Berlin. I chose not to answer these questions so typical of a spy.
The plane trees that just a moment before had been jogging through the landscape with impressive speed now tottered like rickety old invalids with canes. The train crept into a gigantic cathedral, gave a screech, and stopped.
The station was a huge circus tent. A few doves were sitting on high perches, cooing. I knew these doves had emerged from a magician’s bowler. An iron donkey loaded up with suitcases passed close beside me. A blinking magic slate kept announcing new circus numbers. Now a colorfully dressed woman appeared, her thighs exposed. The microphone announced the names of the stars to the audience. Someone whistled behind my back, and a proud dog dressed like a human being made his entrance. On the counter lay a pile of sugar cubes—the classic reward for stage artists.
My nose, which had been straying through the air, disoriented, suddenly had a bouquet of flowers pressed to it, there was a smell of nectar, and a word of greeting reached me through the flowers: “Welcome!” A number of hands were thrust in my direction: a swollen hand, a bony hand, a thin hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand. I shook hands like a politician, giving each of these unfamiliar hands a self-important squeeze.
I had never before seen such a lavish bouquet. What was it for? It wasn’t as if I’d just displayed any particular artistry. Was exile like a sort of tightrope walking, a feat worthy of reward? Admittedly it was a challenge to pull off such a stunt without rehearsal or support, but I wasn’t finding it so terribly difficult. The woman with dyed red hair who’d handed me the bouquet probably wanted to say something to me, her mouth was moving as if in speech. But no words came out. In her place, a young man with appetizing baby fat said: “I apologize, but I’m the only one who speaks Russian. My name is Wolfgang. A pleasure to meet you.” Beside him stood a sweaty man grasping a banner in his right hand and a plump valise in the left. The banner read: Citizens Initiative KAOS—Keeping Authors Out of Siberia. All of them were wearing neatly ironed jeans and well-polished leather shoes, no doubt a sort of uniform for this initiative.
I had no clue what they were discussing among themselves. One of them took his leave, then another departed as well, there were ever fewer of them, and in the end only Wolfgang and I remained. “Time to go.”
To the left and right, buildings towered up in various heights, much smaller than the ones in Moscow. Some of the buildings reminded me of tastefully decorated cakes. The cars gleamed in the sunlight, I could even see my shape mirrored in their metal surfaces. Male and female legs in this city were clad in blue jeans. The wind offered me charred mammal flesh, coal, and sweet perfume.
Wolfgang stopped in front of a building and walked up the stairs. This freshly painted building, I thought at once, must contain my apartment. When I opened the refrigerator, a heavenly landscape of pink salmon appeared, cut into paper-thin slices and sealed in transparent plastic. I tried a slice right away, and it wasn’t bad, though it had a smoky aftertaste. Perhaps the fisherman smoked too many cigarettes while he was working. It took a while before this smoky flavor started to taste good to me. Wolfgang looked around and said: “Beautiful apartment, no?”
The apartment didn’t interest me particularly. All I wanted to do was crawl into the refrigerator and stay there. Wolfgang noticed that I couldn’t take my eyes off the salmon, and laughed. “As you see, we did some serious shopping for you. That’ll have to last you for the time being.” As soon as he left, I quickly devoured the entire supply of salmon.
I stood at the open door of the empty refrigerator, enjoying the cold air. I pulled out a drawer in the bottom section. It was filled with attractive little ice cubes. I put them in my mouth and gnawed on them.
The kitchen soon began to bore me; I went into the next room, which had a television and a chair. I placed my rump carefully on the chair, gradually shifting my weight onto it, and right away there was a cracking sound. The chair lost a leg. Beyond this room was the bathroom, just as small as in the changing room of the traveling circus. I took an ice-cold shower and strolled out of the bathroom without drying myself off. At once, a large puddle appeared in the hall. I shook the water from my body, lay down in the bed, and suddenly had to laugh as a fairy tale popped into my head: Three bears cook some buckwheat porridge and go out for a walk. While they’re gone, a little girl who’s lost her way comes into the house, eats all the porridge, breaks a chair, lies down in bed, and falls asleep. The three bears come home, find the empty pot, the broken chair, and a sound-asleep girl. The girl wakes up, jumps out of bed in fright, and runs away. The three bears stand there, indignant and speechless. I was now in this girl’s position. What was I to do when the three bears returned from their walk?
It wasn’t the three bears who showed up the next day, though, it was Wolfgang, wanting to see how I was doing in the new apartment.
“How are we today?” he asked.
“I feel like the little girl in a bear book for children.”
“Which bear? Winnie-the-Pooh? Or maybe Paddington?
I didn’t know either of these bears. “I mean Lev Tolstoy’s The Three Bears!”
Wolfgang said: “I’ve never heard of that one.”
There was a curtain of ice between Wolfgang and me. Ice appears to be a solid material, but it quickly melts on contact with body heat. I placed my arm on Wolfgang’s shoulder jestingly but firmly. He broke free with remarkable deftness and speed, arranged his face in a rectangular configuration, and said: “I’ve brought you some paper and a fountain pen. We want you to continue your work. Please begin as soon as possible so that the work will be completed as soon as possible. We assure you that you will receive payment from us for your work.” Wolfgang’s mouth smelled of lies. There are different sorts of lies, and each one has its own smell. This particular lie smelled of suspicion: Wolfgang was probably reporting not his own thoughts but the words of his boss. Wolfgang was a liar, but fortunately he was still a young liar. His smell revealed that he was still a child, and a smell cannot lie. I gave him a playful shove, and when he didn’t react, I gave him another one. He pursed his lips and shouted, “Stop that!” but then could no longer suppress his childish desire to wrestle with me. I threw him to the ground, being careful not to crush him. While we were playing, the smell of the lie disappeared from his body.
Soon my stomach was contracting with hunger. Paying no more attention to Wolfgang, I ran into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. No more salmon, I knew it. Wolfgang came in behind me, glimpsed the refrigerator’s empty shelves, and exclaimed: “Oh! I guess I shouldn’t have been worried that you wouldn’t like the salmon.” He probably thought he could conceal his shock behind an ironic tone.
The next day, he visited me again, although I hadn’t asked him to. Blinking frenetically, he stammered, “How are we today?”
“Not good.” I hadn’t mastered the smile technique and often gave the wrong impression.
Wolfgang looked at me, frightened, and asked: “You aren’t well? What’s the matter?”
“My hunger is making me sick.”
“I don’t think hunger is an illness.”
I’d thought as much. I can’t actually get sick. Someone told me once that illness was a traditional form of theater practiced by office workers, who were allowed to put on these performances only on Mondays when they didn’t want to come to work. I’d never been sick in my life.
“What did you do last night?”
“I sat at my desk but couldn’t write.”
An ice-cold glint flashed in Wolfgang’s eyes.
“Take your time! No one is forcing you to work so fast that you lose your inner peace.” Wolfgang was smelling of lies again, I shuddered involuntarily.
“Hunger isn’t the best friend of poetry. Let’s go shopping.”
“I don’t have any money.”
“Then we’ll open a bank account for you. Our boss already made the suggestion.”
On the way to the bank, we passed two giant elephants standing at the side of the road. They were made of a gray substance, perhaps concrete. “Is there a circus here?”
“No, that’s the entrance to the zoo.”
“Animals made of concrete live behind the gate?”
“No! Many real animals live in the zoo. They live on large properties surrounded by fences.”
“Even the lions, leopards, and horses?”
“That’s right. You’ll find more than one hundred different species here.” I was flabbergasted.
What we did in the bank after this was surely not criminal, but afterward I had a
bad conscience. We went into a building that bore a mysterious logo. Wolfgang
whispered something to the man at the window, and they spoke for a little while in hushed voices. Then the man produced a paper with a magic spell on it. I stamped the shape of my paw-hand on the page instead of a signature and opened my first bank account. They said it would be one week before my ATM card was ready. Wolfgang showed me how to get money out of an ATM with a card. I noticed that he spread his thighs unnecessarily wide when he stood before the machine. Next he showed me a supermarket that had been built in the tunnel beneath a railway overpass. At the very back of the store, where the coldest goods were dis- played in the brightest light, was the smoked salmon. “I won’t be able to visit you for the next few days because I’ve been given a very important assignment. I’ll be back in a week. Then we can go pick up your ATM card together. This ration of salmon will have to last until then. Don’t eat too much!”
I ate the entire armful of salmon Wolfgang had bought me that same evening. During the days that followed I ate nothing at all but fortunately felt no hunger. “You shouldn’t eat so much Canadian salmon!” Wolfgang cautioned me in a measured tone of voice when he opened my refrigerator door the next week. I gasped because it was clear that on the inside he was berating me and would have liked to start screaming at the top of his lungs. But he kept his voice under control and spoke calmly, meticulously avoiding all discriminatory language. I felt like a circus performer who’s made an acrobatic error in front of her audience. My thoughts kept circling senselessly around the question of why I shouldn’t eat too much Canadian salmon. “What’s wrong with Canada?”
Wolfgang appeared to be frantically looking for an image that would explain the problem in simple terms. “Canada isn’t to blame for the expensive salmon that find their way there. The problem is they’re eating up your savings. It’s important to save money.” I didn’t understand what exactly he meant by that, but I did note that the word “Canada” sounded beautiful and cool.
“Were you ever in Canada?” I asked him.
“Do you know what sort of country it is?”
“A very cold one.”
When I heard that, I wanted to move to Canada right away.
The adjective “cold” has such an appealing sound. I’d give up anything to experience such cold, for Ice Queen beauty, for shivering jouissance. The ice-cold truth. Acrobatic marvels that give you cold feet. A talent that makes all your competitors blanch and tremble as if frozen. Rationality honed sharp as an icicle. Cold has a broad spectrum.
“Is it really that cold in Canada?”
“Yes, it’s incredibly cold there.”
I dreamed of a frozen city in which the walls of all the buildings were made of transparent ice. Instead of cars, salmon swam through the streets.
I lived with my windows open wide day and night. To me, Berlin was a tropical city. Some nights, the heat held me in its grip and wouldn’t let me fall into sleep. Although it was February, the temperature rose to above freezing. I made up my mind once and for all to emigrate to Canada. Since I already had a successful experience with exile under my belt, surely it would be possible for me to go into exile a second time.
One week later I went to the bank, accompanied by Wolf- gang, to pick up the new ATM card for my checking account. I pushed the hard, rectangular card into the slot in the machine, pressed the number 1 four times (that was my PIN), and watched the machine spit out banknotes. Then I pressed the number 2 four times. “What are you doing? You’ve already got your money,” Wolfgang said in a low but razor-sharp voice. I wanted to know whether the machine might spit out something else, something more interesting, if I put in a different code.
The second time I visited the supermarket, my nose was immediately confounded by all the many smells. I couldn’t remember where the salmon was. This supermarket was selling far too many absurd, unnecessary items instead of offering only what mattered—the salmon. I asked Wolfgang for an explanation of every product that interested me. “What’s that? Can you eat that?” There were so many things I’d never seen before. The animal world is not without its culinary oddities, for example animals who prefer to eat leaves that have been stripped from their branches, roots dug up from the soil, or windfall apples. But this is nothing compared to the curiosities beloved by human beings: the grease they smear on their cheeks, the thick liquid they color their claws with, tiny little sticks they probably use to pick their noses, bags for temporarily storing things that will later be thrown away, the paper they use to wipe their bottoms, the round plates made of pa- per for throwing away, and the notebooks for children with a panda bear on the cover. All these products smelled strange. My paws started itching the moment I touched them.
I was sick of smelling the supermarket odor and just wanted to get back to my study, where my autobiography awaited me. When I said this to Wolfgang, he was relieved.
My desk wasn’t to my liking anymore, it now seemed too low to me—too low for writing a proper autobiography. If the manuscript paper could lie right in front of my nose, close enough to soak up a nosebleed if necessary, I would be able to sit there calmly, letting the memories come as they would. Perhaps the solitude was weighing on me, though I’d been the one who’d asked Wolfgang to leave the room.
For days, I saw neither hide nor hair of him. Perhaps the bank account had been intended to take the place of a love affair. Money was wired to my account, I withdrew it, went shopping, and ate what I had bought. Then I’d come calling again, an impetuous lover ringing the doorbell, and my beloved would appear in the form of banknotes. I couldn’t eat them, so I went to the supermarket and exchanged them for salmon. I ate and ate and ate, and it was never enough. I could clearly feel part of my brain regressing a little more each day. At night I tossed and turned, and then when morning arrived I couldn’t heave myself out of bed. My limbs were as weak as noodles, my mood poorly lit. It was a degeneration. I wanted to do something to stop it. I dreamed of rehearsing a new number in bitter cold to reap the audience’s thunderous applause.
The award-winning translator Susan Bernofsky is completing a biography of Robert Walser.Yoko Tawada
Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960 and moved to Germany when she was twenty-two. She writes in both Japanese and German and has received the Akutagawa Prize, the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, the Goethe Medal, and the Tanizaki Prize.