A new English translation of a book by Yōko Ogawa is always an event, partly because there are relatively few of them, and partly because she’s just so good. Ogawa’s works in English range from the poignant and bittersweet The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003, tr. 2008), in which the eternal truths of mathematics allow two individuals to bond when one of them has lost his short-term memory, to Revenge (1998, tr. 2013), a dark collection of linked stories in which the prospect of an incoherent reality is only slightly more disturbing than the prospect of a coherent one.
Originally published in Japanese in 1994, The Memory Police falls somewhere between those two: there’s a focus on how what we remember makes us and the world, but with a dystopian streak. Ogawa takes us to an island where things periodically disappear from the collective memory. These can be anything from the lemon candies of your childhood to the birds in the sky. Exactly how it happens is uncertain, but people wake up knowing that something has disappeared, then go through the ritual of discarding whatever it is, before the concept itself fades from memory. This leads to some strange and arresting images, such as the sight of roses thrown into the river:
I wiped my palms together, brushing the petals that had stuck to them back into the stream. Petals with frilled edges, pale ones, vivid ones, petals with the calyx still attached. They all clung for a moment to the bricks of the wash landing, but in no time at all they were caught up in the stream again and melted into the mass. (p. 47)
So it takes human intervention for objects themselves to disappear. To make sure that happens, there is the shadowy and brutal Memory Police, who will raid homes without warning to take away what should be forgotten. Our narrator, an unnamed novelist, has firsthand experience of this: her father was an ornithologist, who’d thankfully died before the birds disappeared, because the Memory Police unceremoniously took his records away. A life’s work, gone just like that.
In real life, memory isn’t perfect; in Ogawa’s novel, neither is forgetting. Some people remember everything that has disappeared, and keep hold of what they can to preserve its memory. Those people have to hide from the Memory Police or risk being taken away themselves. One such person is R, the narrator’s editor. She ends up hiding him in a secret room in her house, with help from her friend the old man (a former ferryman in a world without ferries). Much of The Memory Police is the story of R’s concealment and the toll it takes on him, the narrator and the old man.
It’s tempting to read Ogawa’s novel as an allegory of life under authoritarianism, and the depiction of the Memory Police as a quasi-military force adds weight to that interpretation. “The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear,” says R. “From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear with their own hands” (p. 25).
But the focus of the novel is intensely personal and only becomes more so as it goes on. The way that an officer of the Memory Police describes their role to the narrator is illuminating;
Our primary function here is to assure that there are no delays in the process and that useless memories disappear quickly and easily. I’m sure you’d agree that there’s no point in holding on to them. If your big toe becomes infected with gangrene, you cut it off as soon as you can. If you do nothing, you end up losing the whole leg. The principle is the same. The only difference is that you can’t touch or see memories, or get inside the hearts they’re kept in. (p. 106)
This is memory framed as disease, with the Memory Police seeing themselves as medics with a drastic cure. It suggests that Ogawa is exploring the loss that comes inevitably with the passage of time. “What will happen if words disappear?” (p. 26), the narrator wonders to herself. Later, she tells the old man she’s worried that “the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace” (p. 53). She is concerned not just with things disappearing, but also with the mental glue that holds a person and community together.
The process of loss that Ogawa’s novel goes on to enact is complicated. At first, it is straightforwardly R who bears the brunt of hardship: he is the one who’s had his normal life taken away, able to communicate with his family only through a dead drop at prearranged intervals. Living in the secret cubby hole also weakens him physically: “In recompense for a mind that was able to retain everything, every memory, perhaps it was necessary that the body gradually fade away” (p. 119) reflects the narrator, ruefully.
But of course things continue to slip out of memory, and here R indeed has an advantage over the narrator and the old man. R tries desperately to remind his friends of what they used to know and encourages them hold on to their thoughts when something disappears. For example, he gives a gift of a music box that he has kept behind, hoping it will help bring the past to life. The sound is otherworldly to the narrator and old man … but it doesn’t stir any memories. There may be occasional, fleeting flashes of recall, but mostly seeing objects that have disappeared elicits no emotional response—it’s the meaning of these things that has really vanished.
Throughout The Memory Police, the narrator is writing a novel about a woman who goes to a typing class and loses her voice, to the point that she needs a typewriter to communicate. She falls for her typing teacher—who turns out to have trapped the woman’s voice in the typewriter, and then holds her captive.
The parallels between this scenario and the narrator’s situation are not exact—R doesn’t come across as a malevolent figure—but there is a definite sense that the balance of agency shifts as time goes on. To a certain extent, R needs to keep working at the narrator’s memory in order to hold himself together—and she relies more on him as the disappearances become ever more extreme. So everyone loses something, and those vital interpersonal bonds become more strained.
For the most part, Ogawa’s language (in Stephen Snyder’s translation) is typically unshowy. Its placid nature helps to both ground and underline the novel’s strangeness. But the ending takes off as the imaginative stakes grow higher. The sense of loss is more profound, but also more unknowable—as in life, perhaps. That gives The Memory Police its mystery, right to the end.