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6 march 2011

The climactic passage in Arto Paasilinna's novel The Year of the Hare sees its protagonist chase a bear across Finnish Lapland with ursicide on his mind. With my American preconceptions, I thought of the scenes as somewhere between satiric and sardonic. But as I suspected, I was losing a lot in translation. If I'd read Robert Bieder's Bear first, I'd have known that "the bear is intricately coupled to Finnish history and to the Finnish people" (55). Suddenly Paasilinna's chapters become far more fraught. Is his hero Vatanen trying to kill Finland itself?

More than almost any other animal, bears stand for humans, and vice versa. Much of Bieder's book discusses mythology (and postmodern fiction) where bears share language, diet, and upright posture with people. And in many of these tales, bears share sexual relations with humans, too. People often find a small elementof themselves they can project onto another animal: perserverance to the snail, industry to the ant, pomposity to the penguin. But bears are simply us, and we are them. Anything we can do, they can do while towering two feet above us and sleeping all winter long.

Bieder's Bear is more schematic than most of the Reaktion Animal series. He starts with taxonomy, moving methodically through the eight living species of bear. (He includes the panda, but lumps the brown bears of the Northern Hemisphere together into a single species.) He makes a steady progress around the world's bear-related mythologies. He considers bears in their real-life encounters with humans throughout history, and then the pervasiveness of bears in popular culture, especially in stuffed form. He ends with a chapter on the dangers that habitat destruction poses to bear species. Except for the North American black bear, which has adapted very well to "disturbed" ecosystems and is sort of the squirrel among the large carnivores, every other bear on earth is under threat, if not imminently endangered. Even the uncanny polar bear, which has very few worries even from armed human beings on its grounds, is being driven to the brink by climate change.

Bear was published too early to include Knut the polar bear, by several orders of magnitude the most charming bear celebrity of recent years. But there's a significant charm quotient in this mostly-serious volume. Among the best images is a pen-and-ink drawing by the great illustrator Heinrich Kley (which I have been unable to locate for the swiping on the Web). In Kley's "Snaps" a bear tries bearfully to hook (or unhook?) a woman's bra, while she grimaces and tries to guide his paws with her hands. It's a wry take on the erotic bear of legend, and a disarmingly playful recasting of the human male.

Bieder, Robert E. Bear. London: Reaktion, 2005.