Postcards from Knut

Knut having a snooze, July 2007

Once upon a time there was a baby polar bear born in the Berlin Zoo. He was really cute, and everyone who saw him instantly fell in love with him. Because his mother had rejected him at birth, he was raised by a zookeeper, a man named Thomas Dörflein, and in July 2007, when he was half a year old, I went to visit him in the zoo together with Yoko Tawada, a favorite author of mine whom I’d been translating since the early 1990s. Knut had recently been separated from his foster parent, and we were both struck by how sad he looked: despondent Knut. We felt really bad for him. Imagine my surprise, one year later, when I opened my mailbox and found a postcard sent to me by Knut himself! img_0143He was now nearly one and a half years old, and had dictated the postcard to Yoko, since he hadn’t yet learned to write. img_0144“Hi, Susan!” he wrote, “How are you? I’ve gotten so big. I’m doing better than last year.” I was really relieved to hear this, and indeed, the photo he’d sent as his postcard showed a robust-looking young bear who was starting to grow his adult coat in. Half a year later, I heard from him again on the occasion of his second birthdayimg_0140. This time, his note (written on an Air Berlin postcard and no longer dictated, since he was now able to write all by himself) contained worrisome news, img_0141which he emphasized with a newspaper clipping: It was no longer certain whether or not he would be able to remain in Berlin much longer. In this New Year’s message, he anxiously asks whether I can still come to visit him if he moves to Southern Germany or Sweden, and punningly plays – if I’m not reading too much into his words – on the German homonym weiß (which can be either the third-person-singular present-tense conjugation of the verb “to know” or the color “white”), img_0142writing that he just doesn’t know whether or not he’ll be able to stay in Berlin: “a polar bear knows/white not always!” I could see he’d sealed the letter himself because he used a paw print seal. But by the following April, everything was settled again: it had proved possible for him to remain in Berlin after all, and he wrote to let me know how fast he was growing up: “Dear Susan, you might think me still a child, but no! Iimg_0135‘m already a young man who gives his girlfriend a jacket as a birthday present (but first has to play with it a little…)” img_0136Of course, less than a year later, he was dead, felled by some sort of brain swelling. That was truly a sad day. But, as I later learned, Yoko had secretly returned to the zoo on her own (many times, it must have been), conducting numerous interviews with the juvenile bear. After his death, she wrote a book relating his story, and also that of his mother and grandmother (it turns out the young bear had an excellent memory). It was a great honor for me to translate her book into English for all the fans of Knut and polar bears who can’t read Yoko’s writing in Japanese or German. The book officially comes out next week, but I see that my local bookstore already has copies on the shelf, so yours might too. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it was to read the story of these astonishing bears (who knew that Knut’s forebears, so to speak, were famous writers and performers?) and to follow their adventures. If you have a chance to read their life stories, I hope you’ll love them as much as I do.

 

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