‘Etüden im Schnee’ (‘Études in the Snow’) by Yoko Tawada (Review)

IMG_5311Many of you will remember the story of Knut the polar bear, who became a worldwide attraction after being abandoned by his mother at a Berlin zoo, but what does he have to do with German Literature Month?  Well, Yoko Tawada, a Japanese writer who also works in German, used him as inspiration for her most recent book (one you’ll get to see in English next year).  While that may sound a little unusual for literary fiction, there is a reason behind the choice of topic.  This is a novel which is about much more than cuddly creatures from the frozen north…

Etüden im Schnee (Études in the Snow) follows three generations of a family over three-hundred pages.  In the first section, a female Russian, a former circus performer turned writer, moves to West Berlin and then Canada, before leaving with her husband for the DDR.  Her daughter, who was born in Canada, eventually becomes a circus performer herself, achieving worldwide fame for her acts.  Finally, we have the grandson, a boy born after the fall of the Berlin wall, a migrant growing up far from his ancestral roots.

Three stories, then, with three very different voices, combining to produce a story of the difficulties of migration and dealing with racial differences.  Each section also looks at love and longing, and the pain of separation when life takes an unexpected turn.  Oh, yes, I almost forgot – and our friends are all polar bears…

My first experience of Tawada’s writing, Night Train with Suspects, was one of Tawada’s Japanese-language works, with a very Japanese feel to the style despite the largely European setting.  This one was originally written in German, though, and it’s a very different affair.  Taking the familiar tale of cuddly Knut in his Berlin zoo, Tawada uses it to explore a different theme.  She repositions the young polar bear as a third-generation immigrant, an animal with little knowledge of his roots.

The theme of immigration pervades the book.  In a slightly off-kilter world, speaking polar bears are fully accepted, yet are still obviously different to the more prevalent homo sapiens walking around the streets of Moscow or Berlin.  At times, the bears struggle to understand why the smaller, pinker creatures act as they do:

“Jeder aus meinem Publikum konnte selber auf zwei Beinen gehen oder auf drei Rädern fahren.  Dennoch starrten sie auf mich, als würde ein Wunder vorführen.  Und am Ende applaudierten sie mir großzügig.  Warum eigentlich?”
p.64 (konkursbuch, 2014)

“Each person in the crowd was capable of walking on two legs or riding on three wheels.  Nevertheless, they stared at me as if a miracle were taking place.  And at the end they gave me generous applause.  What for?” *** (My translation)

Knut is also reminded of differences on a daily basis.  On his leisurely walks around the zoo, he encounters various species of animals, yet his carer is quick to divide them into two groups: those he could ‘marry’ and those who are too different to get involved with…

This concept of partnerships extends even further, moving into the sensitive area of cross-cultral (or trans-species) relationships.  The most obvious of these is the bond between Knut and his carer, Matthias, a replacement for the mother the young bear never knew:

“Knut wuchs jeden Tag mehr, während der arme Matthias immer weiter schrumpfte.  Knut dachte plötzlich, die Milch käme vielleicht aus Matthias’ Körper, den er jeden Tag quallvoll zerquetschen müsse.  Je mehr Knut trank, desto kleiner und ausgetrockneter wurde Matthias.” (p.218)

“Knut grew bigger every day, while poor Matthias shrank more and more.  It suddenly occurred to Knut that the milk might be coming from Matthias’ body, from which he has to wring it painfully every day.  The more Knut drank, the smaller and more dried out Matthias became.” ***

However, there are also hints of hidden, more sexual, possibilities.  Knut becomes attracted to a man he meets at a dinner party (bear with me here…), with several lingering descriptions of the bear’s new friend.  This is more obvious, though, in the story of Knut’s mother, Toska, particularly in the form of her show-stopping kiss with her partner Barbara…

A further theme which links the three sections is politics, and the way minorities can be used for political gain.  The grandmother becomes an overnight sensation thanks to her autobiography, but is then forced to flee Russia to escape exile to Siberia (which she was actually looking forward to…).  Her daughter, Toska, just wants to be free to dance; however, in a socialist regime, her performances must be used to show the strength and success of the prevalent ideology.  Even Knut’s innocent childhood is used for political purposes, with his role as an ambassador for environmentalism sitting uneasily with the millions to be made from exploiting his image on t-shirts and caps.

Etüden im Schnee is an interesting book and slightly unusual on the whole.  The inspiration clearly comes from Knut’s tale, and this part actually stays fairly close to the real story.  Toska (or Tosca) and Lars were his parents, and he really was raised by a male zookeeper.  Of course, his first-person point-of-view is entirely invented (as far as I’m aware…).

This final section works nicely, and there are lots of fun observations here and elsewhere.  One that caught the eye was the grandmother’s scribbled sentence to show her German benefactors that she’s still writing:

“Die Ehen der Pinguine sind alle gleich, während jede Ehe der Eisären anders ist.” (p.74)

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

A nice Tolstoyan touch harking back to her Russian roots 🙂

While I enjoyed Knut’s story, I’d have to say, though, that I wasn’t as sure overall about the first GLM5two sections of the book.  The first part was rather simple, particularly in its writing style, and while I could see that it was a deliberate imitation of a first-generation migrant finding her voice in the new language, I was very happy to get to the change of voice.  Unfortunately, I found the second section to be the weakest of the three; the story slowed down here, leaving this reader struggling to retain an interest in the story.  These two tales build up to Knut’s story, but to be honest, I’m not sure they were necessary…

Etüden im Schnee is certainly an interesting idea, with much for the reader to think about (for one thing, there are obvious parallels with the writer’s own experiences as a migrant working in a new tongue), yet for me it didn’t really gel as a book.  Having said that, I suspect I’m being overly critical and that most readers will enjoy it a lot more – I can certainly see it doing well in English.  If you want to find out for yourself, you’ll need a little patience; Susan Bernofsky is on the case, with the book (probably) appearing in English in 2016.

This won’t be my favourite discovery for this year’s GLM, but I’ll certainly give Tawada another try at some point.  However, I’ll have to think long and hard about whether I’ll go for a German or Japanese title next time.  Still, one thing’s for sure – it’s always good to have choices 😉

8 thoughts on “‘Etüden im Schnee’ (‘Études in the Snow’) by Yoko Tawada (Review)

  1. it sounds like a concept to far maybe the story of genrations is great but maybe she has overload it would you say Tony. I haven’t tried her yet but when I find a copy I will get one to read.


    1. Stu – As I mentioned, I suspect that other readers will be much more into this than I was. I really enjoyed the last part, but it didn’t quite do it for me overall.


  2. *late to the party*

    I started reading this tonight and after 20 pages i am completely charmed! Thanks for this review and I love how you hid the fact that it’s from the perspective of polar bears. I think i prefer the German title because it doesn’t give it away.


    1. Laura – Yes. it’s an interesting change of title – obviously, the English-language publishers wanted to make that a selling point. As you can see, I didn’t love this as much as most have, but I might have to give it a reread at some point 🙂


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