The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Author: Yoko Ogawa

Publisher: Vintage

Publishing Date: 1 August 2020

Pages: 288

Language: Japanese and English

Translator: Stephen Snyder

Country: Japan

Rating: 4.5/5

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

Imagine a world where flowers, birds, photographs, books, music and all the things that bought you joy, disappear. The disappearance is not just physical but all these things gradually fade away in your memory. What kind of a world would that be? Exactly the one you would find in Yoko Ogawa’s dystopian novel The Memory Police.

The Memory Police was my first foray into Ogawa’s large oeuvre. I was quite happy that I choose this novel. The story takes place on an unnamed island, where the people are living under an oppressive regime. They experience collective amnesia as they wake up and random things like ribbons, novels, ferries, flowers etc. start disappearing. The disappearance is not only physical. The inhabitants must ensure that the things are completely erased by purging all evidence of it’s existence from the world and also from their minds.

The island is under the Memory Police, who crush any resistance. However, most people drift along and comply with their oppressive rule. But there are a small number of people who are immune to these ‘disappearances’.  They retain memories of the disappeared objects and are a threat to the regime. So they must be concealed and this is where the narrator’s story starts. She is a writer and one day she discovers that her editor can retain his memories of disappeared objects. She conceals him in her house, in a secret room, under her floorboards, in a manner that is reminiscent of Anne Frank.

There is something haunting about The Memory Police. The narrator’s gradual disappearance, the constant sense of claustrophobia or the collective amnesia of the inhabitants, there is something about this novel that just won’t leave you for a long time. Ogawa’s writing is simple, almost spare. Nonetheless, it is deeply profound. The setup is typically dystopian and it reminded me of Orwell’s 1984. There is a quiet tension that stalks the pages of The Memory Police.

The ending of dystopian novels is generally sad and the loss is felt collectively. However, in The Memory Police, the loss feels quiet and serene, as if each inhabitant is facing a personal apocalypse. The novel offers no easy answers and as you read further, you realise how pertinent it is today. The Memory Police captures the alienation of being alive today as our ecosystems, glaciers, languages, flora and fauna and possibly our future is vanishing at a rapid pace, before we can even comprehend.

The Memory Police is a meditation on death. The inhabitants of the island are constantly facing an existential crisis. They don’t just lose objects but also memories attached to those objects, which gradually results in the loss of a sense of self. Such losses can never be recovered. Ogawa writes, ‘A heart has no shape, no limits. That’s why you can put almost any kind of thing in it, why it can hold so much. It’s much like your memory, in that sense.’ But what will you do if your heart is gradually disappearing?

The Memory Police is partly political in its approach. In today’s world our collective memory seems no more than a goldfish swimming in a bowl. Where yesterday’s news is swallowed up by today’s hypocrisy. Even though published some twenty-five years ago, The Memory Police has stood the test of time and stands relevant even today.

Read this novel not just because it’s a beautiful piece of translated fiction but for it’s truth about our times and where our future might take us.