Author(s): Yoko Ogawa
Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed. When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn't forget, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next? The Memory Police is a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss from one of Japan's greatest writers. For readers of The Handmaid's Tale, Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Who are the Memory Police? With their purposeful stride, their polished boots, guns at the hip, expressionless faces, and their dark green trucks with canvas covers, they are reminiscent of Bradbury’s Firemen and Orwell’s Big Brother troops. Living on the island controlled by the Memory Police (we never know who they work for or what exactly their mission is aside from oppressing memory) are the Novelist and her editor, ‘R’. The Novelist’s parents are long dead and her world is a small community — her neighbours, the editor and an old family friend, simply known to us as The Old Man. As more objects disappear, the Novelist becomes increasingly unsettled. Like most of the inhabitants, she easily accepts the loss of objects. One day the rose bushes are no longer ,and for several days the rivers are filled with petals gently being washed out to sea. “None of the petals were withered or brown. On the contrary, perhaps because the water was so cold, they seemed fresher and fuller than ever, and their fragrance, mixed with the morning mist from the river, was overpoweringly strong. Petals covered the surface as far as the eye could see.” A few days later the rose and the idea of the rose simply cease to exist. The inhabitants’ memories are wiped. The forgetting is like a mist: evasive. Yet some don’t forget and when they can no longer hide this they literally go into hiding. The first person the Novelist knew who was like this was her mother, a sculptor. She would keep objects (keepsakes) in a cabinet in her studio and share these with her daughter, then a young girl, hoping to trigger a sense of understanding — a connection to the past through the items she placed in her hands telling stories, hoping to trigger memories. But her mother’s purpose was greater — to preserve what the Memory Police tried to blackout. When ‘R’ is in danger of being discovered (he remembers) the Novelist and the Old Man construct a secret room in her house and hide him from the authorities. They are lucky. Life carries on despite the increasingly fast pace of disappearances. Calendars go, dates and days, months are no longer. And in turn, the inhabitants wonder whether winter will ever cease — as if by thinking just this, spring fails to arrive. Novels are no longer and you can imagine the book burnings. And a novelist no longer knows what or why she writes. R encourages her to continue in secret, demanding that her manuscript remains hidden with him. While the words do not come at all at first, eventually a word does emerge, along with what she feels are nonsensical phrases, and through perseverance she does write again — but now it is with a great personal cost. When a body cannot function, can that person still be in existence? Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is haunting and fascinating, an allegory for totalitarianism, as well as an exploration of memory and forgetting. What is memory, and are objects necessary to understand our past? In what part of ourselves do we truly exist: the physical or the consciousness — and what happens to one without the other? Ogawa’s novel is fascinating on many levels and her prose is a joy to read with its simple style and depth of meaning.
Longlisted Booker International 2020