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The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa – a world without memory

The Memory Police qualifies as the most unsettling novel I’ve read this year. The last book I’d read by Yogo Ogawa – Revenge – was disturbing and strange but The Memory Police is in another league all together.

The novel is set on an unamed island somewhere in the world (there are hints of Asia but this is never made explicit). The lives of its inhabitants are controlled by an unknown force that causes objects to disappear. Lighthouses, books, maps and calendars are among the objects that have been made to “disappear”.

Sleepwalking To Oblivion

There is no warning of a new disappearance or any announcement. Things tend to disappear overnight and the islanders wake up with a vague awareness that something has gone. There are no howls of protest or anguish; the islanders just remark on the strangeness of the latest developments and then ” shrug them off with as little fuss as possible and make do with what’s left.”

One morning they find a river covered with rose petals, flowing downstream “as if someone had hypnotised each one of them and was drawing them toward the sea.” It is the first step in the eradication of all signs of roses. Rose bushes are dug up and all images and writings about roses are burned. Days later the erasure is so complete that they are “unable to remember what this thing called a rose looked like”.

The Memory Police are there to root out those who retain any memories of the disappeared items. This fascist-style force patrols the streets, raid houses and forcibly remove anyone suspected of remembering. The “disappeared” persons are never seen again.

I struggled initially with this premise. If all memory of the disappeared objects is lost, then the fact the narrator can refer to some of those items seemed illogical. How can you name what you no longer remember?. Eventually we learn that it’s not the memory of the object per se, that is lost. It’s the memory of the item’s significance or its purpose that has gone.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird”—everything.

Over the course of the novel, the list of disappeared items expands. Some disappearances are minor, such as stamps, but others have more effect on daily life. Without ferries, the islanders cannot leave; without maps they have no idea where they are in the world. Food supplies shrink and soon nature itself seems to abandon the island. The birds disappear and then the seasons, leaving the island in a perpetual blanket of winter snow.

It’s a miserable existence but when the disappearances begin to affect parts of the human body, I began to feel distinctly queasy.

At its most basic level The Memory Police reflects on the power of a totalitarian state to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives, and to so distort the truth that the unthinkable and unacceptable becomes tolerable. It’s easy to see parallels with Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the regimes of Latin America where hundreds of thousands of people have “disappeared.”

Value of Memory

But on a deeper level, Yoka Ogawa is exploring the value and importance of memory itself. Without memory the essential qualities of being a human vanish, leaving a void where once there was a person. It’s but a short step from failing to recall certain objects to forgetting the emotions once associated with those objects. Without roses, there is no love. Without ferries, there is no freedom. Without memory there can be no soul.

What’s being projected in The Memory Police is the insidious erosion of everything that makes us human. The female narrator, an author, signals the possibility in one of her conversations with her confidante, an old ferryman who knew her parents before they were “disappeared”. Soon, she tells him, the island will be nothing but absences and holes, “and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.” Yes, responds her friend, life on the island is less full than it was but there’s nothing to worry about. Every time something has disappeared, he’s found a way to adjust.

There are people on the island who fight to preserve memory. One of them is the narrator’s editor (a man known only as “R”). His ability to remember puts his life in danger so the narrator and the ferryman build a secret room in which he can hide from The Memory Police. In return, “R” tries to save them by re-awakening their memories of disappeared objects and to get them to understand what it’s like to remember.

But it’s too late. Though they long to know what the objects are that he has salvaged, all they get are transitory glimpses. As the girl explains to R:

I know you can summon up memories of the music box and the ferry ticket, the harmonica or the ramune. But that doesn’t mean the things themselves come back. It’s no more than a momentary flash, like the tip of a sparkler when you light it in the dark. When the light’s gone, it’s instantly forgotten, and you can scarcely believe what you saw just a moment ago.

The Memory Police is a novel that will frustrate some readers because it raises so many questions that are not answered within the text. Who are the Memory Police exactly? Who is the unnamed ‘leader’ who guides their actions? What determines the order in which items are disappeared? What is the ultimate purpose of these disappearances? Is this island the only location affected by disappearances?

Despite my initial reservations about the book, I ended up loving it. Every part of it in fact. Not just the breathtaking boldness of Yoko Ogawa’s concept or her sparse prose whose under-stated nature often masks the full dreadful nature of what is being presented. I also loved the abstract nature of the narrative because the lack of specificity about time and place meant its themes cut across eras and societies.

A Novel For Our Times?

The Memory Police was published in Japan almost a quarter of a century ago. Ogawa might have used it as a commentary on society as she saw it then but in its treatment of memory it seems to act as a wake-up call to our own times. Maybe I’m reading too much into this but I wonder whether one day we will wake up to find our eco-systems destroyed, unique languages and cultures eroded through globalisation and ethnic groups erased and we won’t even remember why once they were important.

The Memory Police by Yogo Ogawa: EndNotes

First published in Japan in 1994, The Memory Police is one of more than 50 works of fiction and non-fiction by Yōko Ogawa. The English edition, with translation by Stephen Snyder, was published by Pantheon Books and Harvill Secker  in 2019. It was named a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, as well as for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

I read this book as part of the  Japanese Literature Challenge hosted by Meredith at DolceBezzellla.net. By happy coincidence it was also chosen for our book club read earlier this year.

Sadly this is one of the few books by Ogawa that are available in English. I’ve read The Housekeeper and The Professor and Revenge, which means the only ones left to enjoy are Hotel Iris and The Diving Pool. But if the open letter written by Tony @Tony’sReadingList does its trick. I hope we’ll see many more translations over the next few years.

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