The Memory Police

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is one of the few books which had been previously proposed as a potential winner of this year’s International Booker to have made it onto the long list. It follows her shortlisting for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Revenge in 2014, and is, surprisingly, the first translation of her work to appear since then (by regular translator, Stephen Snyder). Like Revenge, and indeed most of her work which has been translated, it dates from the 1990s; it is, however, much more substantial than anything that has appeared before which has tended towards stories, novellas and short novels.

The eerily prescient premise of The Memory Police is one of erasure. In the island society of our narrator objects and ideas disappear from one day to the next:

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

These disappearances not only remove the objects from the island but from the memories of those living there. Take, for example, the day birds disappear:

“Then I spotted a small brown creature flying 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 realised 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.”

The narrators’ father, now dead, was an ornithologist, and the Memory Police soon arrive to remove all the materials relating to birds from his office. Her mother, too, is dead, though in different circumstances, having been taken away by the Memory Police and reported to have died suddenly later. As part of their role the Memory Police not only eradicate any trace of an object which has been disappeared, but also take away people who can still remember it, as the narrator witnesses one day on the street:

“Judging from the loose buttons, fluttering shoelaces, and bits of clothing protruding from their bags, it was clear that they had been forced to pack quickly. And now they were being marched out of the building with weapons at their backs. Still their faces were calm and they stared into the distance with eyes as still as a lonely swamp deep in the woods. In those eyes, no doubt, were all sorts of memories that had been lost to us.”

The narrator’s mother was one of those people who held onto her memories, as we see in an early scene where she describes a number of lost objects to her daughter, including perfume:

“I could tell there was some sort of scent there – like the smell of toasting bread, or the chlorine form the swimming pool, yet different – but no matter how I tried, no other thought came to mind.”

The narrator is a novelist and her decision to hide her agent, R, from the Memory Police is partly loyalty to her first reader, but also to her mother, after a scene in which R is able to remember those very things which her mother attempted to describe to her:

“But I remember… the beauty of the emerald and the smell of perfume. I haven’t forgotten anything.”

Enlisting the help of her nurse’s husband, who had once been a mechanic on the now disappeared ferry, they create a hidden room for R to live in. The novel then plays off the tension of whether they can keep R hidden while at the same time coping with the increasing number of disappearances. Less importantly (or perhaps less successfully) we follow the progress of the narrator’s novel about a woman who loses her voice and attempts to find it again through learning to type. For me, this added little to the overall narrative, though the character’s increasing powerlessness to some extent mirrors the narrator’s.

Where Ogawa is most successful is in the novel’s tone which manages to be both placid and menacing at the same time. From the beginning we understand that there is little resistance to the disappearances. “People,” the narrator tells us, “- and I’m no exception – seem capable of forgetting almost anything.” As her mother told her:

“…no one makes much of a fuss and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened.”

Though her friend, the mechanic, agrees to help her, he is of the opinion, “There’s nothing too terrible; about things disappearing – or forgetting about them.” As the novel progresses, we see the dangers of forgetting more and more clearly as we head to the inevitable conclusion.

The Memory Police is well deserving of its place in the long list. If I have any doubts about it they relate to the common problem of fiction which begins with one big idea – its tendency to to write itself into a corner. As more and more aspects of life disappear there is an inexorable logic to the narrative’s direction which overpowers the novel’s other concerns. Ogawa’s decision to cast her narrator as a novelist can also seem a little lazy at times. Despite this, the novel is a powerful (and timely) examination of our acceptance of continual reduction.

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4 Responses to “The Memory Police”

  1. International Booker Prize 2020 Long List | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Memory Police by Yōko Ogowa, translated by Stephen Snyder from Japanese (Harvill Secker) […]

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    For some reason, your post didn’t appear in my WP reader, but luckily I saw your tweet so here I am…

    It’s really interesting to hear about your responses to this book, particularly as I also read it fairly recently. You’ve captured the tone really well, that sense of it being calm and deeply unsettling all at once – it’s strangely eerie. I found it a very poignant read in the current climate when so many of the things we have taken for granted for many years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future.

  3. Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how […]

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