Book review: ‘The Memory Police’ 密やかな結晶 by Yoko Ogawa

(no spoilers)

Did I read this novel thinking it was a modern bestseller only to find out as I was writing this review that it was written in 1994, 26 years ago? And that it was only translated to English in 2019? Yes, yes I did. How can we have been robbed of this for so many years?

The Memory Police is one of those rare masterpieces – tackling a massive concept and philosophising on multiple important issues while not sacrificing the humanity of its characters. And on top of that, written in such a Kafka-like dream state that it leaves you, as the reader, feel totally untethered to the ground. It really unnerved me. 

Our young protagonist has lost both of her parents. She is unnamed even to us, working on a novel with her editor, R. She becomes close with a family friend, known only as ‘old man’ (my favorite character) who offers her real friendship and kinship. 

The genius herself, Yoko Ogawa

The key to understanding this novel fully (which took me a while) is to fully accept the idea of an object as not just its physical form or name, but everything associated with it. All memories, experiences – all recognition. Some mornings, the island community wakes up to the sense that something new has ‘disappeared’. One morning, it’s perfume. Then birds. Then roses. 

This review from the Guardian puts it much better than I can: “When morning arrives they find that red petals are inundating the river. “The breeze seemed to discriminate, choosing only the rose petals to scatter.” Without need of instruction, the islanders, “quiet, dazed”, dig up their rose bushes. They throw them into the river or incinerate them at communal fires. Some observe small ceremonies to mark the departure. Days later, the rose gardens will be gone and no one will remember what existed on that piece of land. The word “rose” will dissolve from memory; the Memory Police will do a thorough search for all images and writings about roses and remove them. “The first duty of the Memory Police [is] to enforce the disappearance.” The bird observatory is already in ruins, since the birds flew away never to return. Former hat-makers, ferrymen and boat mechanics have been displaced into other professions, as hats and ferries no longer exist.”

If there is a time when this status quo was challenged, we have passed it by the time the novel begins. The island community have accepted their sad and increasingly difficult reality, and the presence of the Memory Police. R, however, remembers. He is one of the small few (cursed, depending on how you see it) to continue to feel the loss of all these items. Over time, he becomes at risk of being captured by the Memory Police who seek to destroy evidence of disappeared objects, and those who remember their existence. Together, the writer and the old man hide him away in the house to keep him safe, and report back what has disappeared, as the regularity increases. 

Over time, the little ‘cave floating in the sky’ which houses R becomes full of more and more objects that are ‘disappeared’. The losses get bigger and bigger as the inhabitants forget photographs and books (resulting in terribly sad scenes where the novelist, despite great longing, can no longer elicit any response from those objects and looks to burn photos of her mother, and her work which used to bring great joy). R works to try to preserve the memory of memory itself for the novelist and the old man – but the great sadness and horror of this novel is that it cannot work. 

The eventual, inevitable final chapters are heart-rending and bring the reader a feeling of total helplessness and, for me, even a feeling of weightlessness as I witnessed the inhabitant’s hearts growing ‘thinner’ and their reality disintegrating. 

I could write so much more on the subject of this book – the exploration of authoritarian societies across the world and multiple timelines, terminal illness associated with memory like dementia, or mental illness like Somatoparaphrenia that causes you to deny ownership of your limbs, the love subplot, the novelist’s own story which suggests a much greater fear than she elicits in the ‘real world’, about the idea of presence, letting go of what you can’t control, etc. But this is the kind of book you could write another book about. 

The pervasive feeling I got from ‘The Memory Police’ was one of fear, and simultaneously, peace. As a reader you note that the island’s inhabitants are the definition of present and accepting of each day’s new reality – but you feel that surely there must be a limit where the spell breaks. Surely, there must be some things you can’t erase. Because what might we become once it is all gone?

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