The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa tr. Stephen Snyder

From an extraordinary writer and storyteller who defies categorisation, another tale that stretches and flexes the readers imagination, hauntingly written, leaving me to wonder just how she does it, a thought I had after reading her novel, or story collection Revenge in 2013.

The Memory Police are an oppressive, bureaucratic menace slowly making things on the island disappear along with all memories of them in the minds of inhabitants. And they enforce forgetfulness. Checking up on people to be sure memory has been erased, because though for most the memories disappear without effort, in some they linger. Those whose memory somehow stays intact live in danger, they begin to disappear, go in to hiding or are forcefully removed.

Our unnamed narrator has lost both her parents, taken by the police and no longer heard of; though her mother tried to preserve and hide some of the things that disappeared through her art. The daughter is a novelist, as long as words, imagination and voice exist she continues to write. She accepts her fate and continues to adapt to each disappearance with the help of an old man she is close to and the company of the neighbour’s dog, when its owners are removed.

Her editor R goes into hiding due to his ability to remember and tries to instill in her the importance and value of memories, while sometimes a memory returns, for her, it no longer has emotional significance or meaning. She possesses empathy but is void of nostalgia, without the objects the memories disappear and even when one reappears, it no longer evokes any emotion or feeling.

Gathering photographs (when they become the next thing to disappear) and albums to burn, R makes a desperate effort to stop her:

“Photographs are precious. If you burn them, there’s no getting them back. You mustn’t do this. Absolutely not.”
“But what can I do? The time has come for them to disappear,” I told him.
“They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

It’s a dystopian novel that focuses more on the survival of the citizens than on exploring the tyranny that oppresses them, the Memory Police don’t seem to be afflicted with “forgetting” and we don’t understand what motivates them. Is it an allegory of collective degeneration, or an attempt to make the reader understand something that is universal among the aged? Suffering seems to rest with those to retain memory, those who forget adapt, and forget that they have forgotten.

There doesn’t seem to be any purpose, merely an exploration of those aspects of humanity of the oppressed to survive and care for one another, whether that means putting one’s life at risk to hide someone who does retain memories, to seek out old memories at the risk of being caught, caring for an old man and a dog.

Some things are innate to humanity and no matter what afflicts us, we are endlessly adaptable, continuing to find ways to work around and/or accept obstacles, here presented in a somewhat absurd manner, highlighting our inability to fight against adaptability. We have no choice but to adapt, it’s written into our genes, and this regime has somehow managed to find a way to control and rewrite them.

Alongside what is happening on the island’s (sur)real world, our protagonist writes a novel about a woman taking typing lessons from a man who will put her in a tower, these chapters are interspersed throughout the narrative and provide an alternative, thought-provoking aspect to the wider story.

When novels disappear and hers remains unfinished despite numerous attempts to write at the request of R, and a loss of inspiration, the old man asks her if it’s possible to write about something in a novel if you’ve never experienced it.

“I suppose it is. Even if you haven’t seen or heard about something, it seems you can just imagine it and then write it down? It doesn’t have to be exactly like the real thing; it’s apparently all right to make things up or even lie.”

“That’s right. Apparently no one blames you for lying in a novel. You can make up the story out of nothing, starting from zero. You write about something you can’t see as though you can see it. You make something that doesn’t exist just by using words. That’s why R says we shouldn’t give up, even if our memories disappear.”

Each disappearance activates the reader’s imagination and the novel provokes many questions that make this an interesting one to discuss.

It’s a novel that stayed with me long after reading, wondering what it was getting at; just as you think you’ve found some deeper meaner, it kind of gets erased, there are no easy conclusions…it’s like the advent of short term memory loss, a literary version of mild cognitive impairment, an affliction all humans post middle age experience and one this novel makes you experience what that might be like in reading. Astonishing.

Further Reading

The Guardian: The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa review – profound allegory of loss by Madeleine Thien

NY Times Article: How “The Memory Police” makes you See  by Jia Tolentino

Thanks to an email from Peirene Press this morning sharing news of the long list nomination of their novella Faces On the Tip of My Tongue by the French author Emmanuelle Pagano, I see that both The Memory Police and The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar have also been nominated for the International Booker 2020.

7 thoughts on “The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa tr. Stephen Snyder

  1. Pingback: International Booker Long List 2020 – Word by Word

  2. A very timely review. Of the books on the International Booker longlist, this is the one I’m most interested in reading. The premise sounds so compelling, as does Ogawa’s execution of the central themes. Plus, your closing paragraph leaves me even more intrigued to try it. Astonishing indeed!

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    • The review was sitting in draft unpublished, so I was prompted to post it after hearing the announcement. I love Ogawa’s work, she’s the kind of writer that I’ll follow even if I’m a little unsure of the territory, she holds such allure. I’m always left thinking about her work afterwards and love coming to my own conclusions about what the reading experience has meant.
      And while there may be a sinister element, it give me pause to reflect that there is a tendency to dramatise memory loss, but what would it be like if everyone lost the same memories at the same time, if it were normalised, so to speak? The danger is reversed.

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  3. Pingback: International Booker Prize Shortlist 2020 – Word by Word

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

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