The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa (Pantheon 978-1-101-87060-0, $25.95, 288pp, hc) August 2019.
The Memory Police is, by my count, the fifth book by Yoko Ogawa to be translated into English (all by Stephen Snyder). These include The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, which was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award back in 2008. While it’s only a small slice of a career that spans three decades and the publication of more than 40 works, I’m thankful to publishers like Harvill Secker for making Ogawa’s fiction available.
The Memory Police is set on an unnamed island where the population, without warning, lose their memory of everyday items like ribbons, bells, emeralds, and stamps. It’s not just that people forget, they experience a wrenching shift in reality – “something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air,” – which signposts that a disappearance has taken place. In the opening chapters of the novel, it’s “birds” that experience this process of erasure:
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.
A disappearance also requires the residents, under the supervision of the all-seeing Memory Police, to destroy any remaining evidence of the forgotten item. On the day that roses cease to exist (which includes a breathtaking, haunting image of petals blanketing the river only to be washed away) people who once carefully tended their gardens can be found on the edge of the river tearing apart their flowers. One woman explains that her roses won the gold medal at last year’s fair and yet “there was no regret in her voice… once her work was done, she turned, and without a glance at the stream… [she] left.” Our narrator (unnamed, like all the characters in the story) is a fledgling novelist who discovers that her editor – a man she’s come to respect and love – retains a memory of the things that have vanished. This makes him a threat to the Memory Police, who have been carting away anyone who show signs of remembering – including our narrator’s mother. With the assistance of her closest friend, an old man who lives on a boat, our narrator comes up with a bold plan to shield the editor from the Memory Police.
I have no idea whether Ogawa, when she wrote The Memory Police 25 years ago, was responding to the political or social climate within Japan, or whether she was simply taken by the idea. Reading the book in 2019, it’s hard not see Ogawa’s solipsistic attitude to identity and memory as a critique of the West’s current existential crisis, where people are willing to forget (or ignore) the lessons of the past and vote in governments and leaders who might not be out-and-out fascists, but whose nativist outlook has a distinct Nazi flavour. What really stands out, though, about Ogawa’s dystopia is the sense of quiet hopelessness. It’s not so much that the Memory Police have quashed all resistance – though they’re ruthlessly efficient in suppressing those who do remember – it’s that the disappearances are utterly random, with seemingly no person or entity in control of what vanishes. Even our narrator’s courageous decision to secretly shelter the editor – devising an ingenious hidey-hole below the floor of her house – feels more symbolic than an actual act of defiance. That feeling of despair permeates the novel (within the novel) that our narrator is writing, excerpts of which are braided through the narrative. The story involves a mute woman who communicates exclusively through her typewriter. When the typewriter malfunctions, her lover – whom she met at the typing class he teaches – promises to repair it. Instead, he imprisons the woman in a room in the steeple of the Church crammed with hundreds of broken typewriters, suggesting she is not his only victim. In many respects, the events of the story, namely the character’s confinement, her inability to speak, and the gradual dissolution of her identity, is more horrific than the widespread dementia experienced by those on the island.
I know this all sounds unbelievably depressing, but the fable-like quality of the prose, unassuming, gentle, and totally devoid of cynicism, makes this a very accessible novel. The book is also leavened by a number of bright spots, whether it’s the burgeoning love between the narrator and the editor, or her father/daughter relationship with the old man, or the incredible moment when the narrator tastes a lemon drop for the first time since their disappearance. I was particularly moved by the old man’s adoration for the narrator’s novels, even if he’s never read her work. As he explains, “If you read a novel to the end, then it’s over. I would never want to do something as wasteful as that. I’d much rather keep it here with me, safe and sound, forever.” It’s a beautiful sentiment, but one I could never abide by, especially not in the case of Yoko Ogawa, whose fiction I look forward to “wasting” for many years to come.
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This review and more like it in the September 2019 issue of Locus.
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