The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

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Translated by Stephen Snyder

Paperback review by Annabel


Yoko Ogawa’s latest novel has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize: the winner to be announced on August 26th. The competition is, so I hear, stiff – but could this be Ogawa’s and her long-term translator Stephen Snyder’s year?

Ogawa’s elegant and understated prose is always beguiling and full of undercurrents. She first came to our attention in translation with the charming The Housekeeper and the Professor which is about an academic with no short-term memory and the woman and her son who befriend him. However, Ogawa’s work is typically much darker as in Hotel Iris, a disturbing sort of coming of age story in which a seventeen-year-old has a relationship with a much older widower. So, I broadly knew what I could expect!

The Memory Police has a bold concept at its core. Our narrator, a young novelist, lives on an island on which things regularly ‘disappear’ from their lives. The Memory Police are in charge of ensuring that the residents respect the disappearances, and with time, their previous existence gradually fades from peoples’ memories.

But there are some who can’t forget. The novelist’s mother, a sculptor, was one, and she was taken away by the Memory Police. When the novelist finds that her editor is another, together with an old family friend, they create a secret room in which to hide him and his collection of disappeared items.

Meanwhile, life goes on, more things disappear and the Memory Police rule. The narrator remembers back to her childhood, and her mother talking about the disappearances.

“The island is stirred up after a disappearance. People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. There are regrets and a certain sadness, and we try to comfort one another. If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But 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, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.”

Then, her mother would show her collection of disappeared items, each in its own drawer – but although they fascinate the young narrator, she struggles to understand their previous purpose.

On one obvious level, Ogawa’s world is a totalitarian state, with the increasingly terrifying Memory Police in their smart uniforms as the SS or Stasi. The whole premise reminded me instantly of the superbly quirky satire in Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, also set on an island – in which the letters of the alphabet in turn are decreed into disuse with dire consequences for those disobeying. Whereas Ella Minnow Pea is a savage comedy, The Memory Police is altogether more serious in its treatment of the disappearances.

Ogawa elevates the novel from being a mere dystopia by having the narrator writing a novel that unwittingly echoes her own life of gradual loss. Her story is about a woman who falls for her typing instructor and gradually moves from talking to him to communicating via typewriter, becoming more and more shut in, and submissive to him as he becomes more dominant (a theme of Hotel Iris). Ogawa intersperses chapters from this book within a book throughout and there is added poignancy from realising it will be last novel that the narrator writes.

One of the first things to disappear is roses. The town had had a beautiful rose garden; everyone awakes to find the river full of perfumed rose petals, blown there by the wind – it’s a beautiful ending for the flowers, but…

A rose garden without roses was a meaningless, desolate place, and it was terribly sad to see the trellises and other signs of all the care that had been lavished on the flowers. The murmur of the river did not reach me here and the rich, soft soil made a pleasant sound underfoot. With my hands thrust in my pockets, I wandered across the hill as though walking through a cemetery of unmarked graves.

The walls are moving in inch by inch, and the islanders’ lives are gradually made more and more banal as their memories are censored. Ogawa’s narrator, who is still hiding her editor, being helped by her old family friend who used to be the ferry master before they disappeared the ferry, is caught between wanting to remember and being unable to, despite the best efforts of the editor during their conversations in the hidden room. But things, be they material or more conceptual, keep disappearing, and that does get problematic for everyone’s diminishing lives. By the end, I was reminded of a classic SF film, but I won’t spoil anything by telling you which one.

If this novel hadn’t been written so beautifully, I would have had problems with the lack of explanation. Ogawa never tells us the origins of the disappearances, of where the Memory Police came from and who is in charge of them, or who chooses the next thing to have to vanish from their lives. If there is a Big Brother, he stays in the background.

The Memory Police are ultimately a mechanism, and Ogawa’s exploration of collective forgetting, as Ishiguro does in The Buried Giant, is the real theme of this novel. As with Ishiguro’s protagonists, those who can’t remember show an acceptance that is hard to comprehend; it’s almost as if they are resisting the act of recall. It’s good that the narrator has her moments of fighting against the system. As acceptance turns to despair, there seems to be little hope for a happy ending.

There is no doubting the elegance of the thought experiment behind this novel. Showing Ogawa’s characteristic flair for understatement, this is another troubling but beguiling tale and I would be very happy for it to win the prize.

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Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police (Vintage, 2020). 978-1784700447, 288pp., paperback.

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