The Memory Police [1994/2019] – ★★★★★
“They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time…when somebody says your name for the last time” (Banksy, re-quoting Ernest Hemingway). Yōko Ogawa (The Housekeeper and the Professor [2003/08]) wrote The Memory Police in 1994, and it was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder in 2019. In this beautiful dystopian book, our young female character works as a writer on one curious island – there, things sometimes simply disappear from time to time, and with those “disappearances” come another interesting element – people soon forget these things completely, how they looked and what they felt like. For them, these things simply cease to exist. The enforcement of the memory erosion is the task for the special Memory Police, that ruthlessly detects and investigates any traces of disappearing objects, as well as hunts people that are still able to remember them. When one man, R, a book editor, is in danger of being caught for remembering disappeared things, our lead character vows to do everything in her power to save him from a terrible fate. The Memory Police may share some themes related to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Orwell’s 1984, but, in its spirit at least, it is a different book– it is filled with quiet, reflective moments and has its own special, eerie atmosphere. The premise may start with one absurd situation, but it soon transforms into something very heart-felt, as its characters try to make sense of one weird world that is slowly becoming devoid of one essential meaning. At the heart of Ogawa’s novel is the importance of memory and its preservation, which remains at the core of our history and our state of being conscious, free-willed and emotionally-complex beings.
At the start, I would like to say that I believe The Memory Police is let down by its marketing – both the title of the book, as well as the book cover, may send out the wrong impression about the story and misrepresent what the story is all about. There is the Memory Police in the story, but the story is not about the Memory Police. The book is about something much more profound and humane, and a subtler, more beautiful title should have been used (the Japanese title is Secret Crystallization). Our heroine in the story introduces us to living on one island where sometimes (both living and inanimate) things simply disappear and, with them, all the memories about these things. Birds, bells and perfumes disappeared in the past…and, recalling birds, our main character writes: “everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything” [1994/2019: 10]. She also talks about her mother who was one of only a few who were still able to remember things after they disappeared. In this sense, Ogawa draws a distinction between two groups of people – the majority who forget, and the tiny minority who still remember (in line with other sci-fi writers who also devised two groups of people in a dystopian society (for example, “soul-less” and “soul-having”, recalling now Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)). Our heroine already has one friend, known as “the old man”, and also makes friends with her book editor – known as R. When it becomes clear that R can remember things after they disappeared, our heroine devises a plan to save him from the Memory Police, whose job is to hunt down people who can still remember.
Our heroine grows up to become a writer, and there is a story within a story in the novel (there is a story which she herself pens). That side story in the novel gives the main story a strange resonance, and parallels can be drawn between the two. In this way, The Memory Police is a clever book without sounding clever. It is shyly intelligent. In fact, the process of writing a book is at the heart of The Memory Police. Book-writing may have the purpose of letting people remember certain things (the process of creation), but the Memory Police does the opposite in the story (the process of destruction), and this creates a conflict between our heroine’s trade and the activities of the Police: “the first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances” [Ogawa/Snyder, 1994/2019: 14].
It is unclear in the story how the process of memory disappearance/erosion works, and it is precisely that uncertainty (as well as the uncertainty surrounding the precise nature and operation of the Memory Police) that gives the novel its qualities of strangeness, eeriness and peculiar fascination: “One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realised. Lying still, eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air, you’ll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you’ll know that you’ve lost something, that something has been disappeared from the island” [Ogawa/Snyder, 1994/2019: 3]. Ogawa also emphasises in her story that memory and the ability to remember something are complex things; that emotion goes hand-in-hand with memory; and that the losing of memory is a gradual process. “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” [1994/2019: 81], and “memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them” [1994/2019: 108], says R to our heroine. A person may also know something without realising they know it (the unknown known), similar to a dream that is still inside our heads that we cannot recall, and we only become aware of it when something from the outside reminds us of it. Similarly, people on the island may not be able to name certain objects or remember how they feel about anymore (after their disappearance), but they may have some hazy emotional connection to these objects that is still present somewhere in their subconscious.
Some drew strong parallels between this novel and Orwell’s 1984, but I have noticed that The Memory Police’s strangeness and absurdity are more in line with Kafka’s work. As in the work of Kafka, there are certain inexplicable rules dictated from above in The Memory Police, but we never see the higher governing authority that makes them. The nature of its broad designs is also unclear, and disappearances look arbitrary, with their purpose remaining unclear. As in Kafka’s work, Ogawa states in her book a certain fact that is to be unquestionable. If in Kafka’s novels, these certain facts are “a person has turned into a giant insect” or “K has been arrested one morning without having done anything wrong”, in The Memory Police, it is “a certain thing has simply disappeared overnight”. It is also impossible not to draw parallels between the activities of the Memory Police and the Nazi persecutions during the World War II (which is an interesting idea given that the novel is from a Japanese author).
Everyone lives in fear in The Memory Police, and the disappearances are beyond people’s control. They are simply something they have to get used to. This idea of “getting used to things” may be described as being typically Japanese since the Japanese culture puts an emphasis on resilience, flexibility and brave acceptance of/copying with the circumstances that people cannot change (people in Japan have historically lived side by side with imminent dangers posed by natural disasters and, in these situations, the ability to quickly rebuild lives from scratch is a guarantee to survival). Albert Camus famously said “after awhile you could get used to anything”, and Ogawa both emphasises and satirises this statement. As the concepts of memory, the trauma of loss and contemplation are all found deep in the Japanese literary tradition (Kawabata, Ishiguro, etc.), they are also present in The Memory Police. The narrative is sometimes contemplative and the book is filled with quiet moments of reflection, making us inwardly ask such questions as – if a thing has vanished from our lives and we cannot recall it, has something necessarily bad happened? After all, we cannot recall it anymore and therefore cannot grieve for it.
Stephen Snyder’s translation is good and sensitive. Some reviewers criticised such translated statements as “things have been disappeared” [1994/2019: 4]. However, this translation is the right one given the context– the emphasis here is on some action performed on a thing. It means that a thing has not disappeared by itself somehow, but gives an eerie idea that someone has caused it to disappear – hence the translation “things were disappeared”. Near the end of the novel, the translation is again – “things disappeared”, meaning that there is finally acceptance of the situation (without another party being somehow involved in it).
The Memory Police is a quiet, eerie and character-driven dystopian novel that focuses on the power of memories and the importance of their preservation. It is only through our remembering and not forgetting we can impart those essential history lessons that need to be learned before we march into building a brighter future. The Memory Police opens to us one interesting world that prompts us to ask questions about our nature and what it really means to remember something and not to forget. Ogawa strikes an admirable balance between revealing and concealing something in her story, and the indeterminate nature of what is going on in the novel gives the story its own peculiar and unforgettable quality.