This blog is something of a detour. It shares my thoughts on a book I first read late 2019 but continue to mull over today. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder) is a dystopian and allegory-laden story of loss — of expression, freedom and, ultimately, life. It’s also a powerful reminder to stand up for what we value and our hard-won rights.
The Memory Police is set on an unnamed island where seemingly random objects, from roses to perfume to birds, disappear without warning. Most people dutifully rid their homes of all evidence of the disappeared objects and very soon forget they ever existed. But there are a handful of people whose genetic makeup prevents them from forgetting. Enforcing the disappearances are the feared Memory Police. And as the police intensify efforts to identify this ‘defective’ memory genome, it is people that vanish, as they are arrested and whisked away for interrogation and tests.
When things like flowers or even animals disappear, it doesn’t seem important. Life carries on.
The story’s protagonist (also unnamed) is a novelist, whose mother was one of those taken by the Memory Police, never to be seen again. Upon discovering her editor has the genetic ability to remember, she hides him in a small, secret room concealed beneath the floor of her study. At the same time she is developing her own (similarly disturbing) novel, about a woman who has lost the ability to speak and becomes dependent on her typewriter for all manner of communication. The disappearances in the novelist’s own world are echoed in her writing — at one point the woman is anxious that typewriter ribbons might vanish and, along with them, her sole means of communication.
As readers, we’re naturally curious about the disappearances. Strikingly, they are described in the passive voice (objects ‘are disappeared’) — so who or what is responsible? They are described in such a matter-of-fact way, and initially I found it frustrating that people surrendered their memories so easily. And why didn’t they have the courage to stand together and resist the Memory Police? But that’s the perspective of the outsider; perhaps it’s just how life is on this strange, not to mention sinister, island. Then the disappearances take a horrific turn.
There are different ways to unpack and interpret elements of the story. Early on in the novel we witness a family, terrified, silent and clutching their hastily-packed luggage, as they are herded into a truck and driven away by the Memory Police. We also learn about brave individuals putting themselves at risk by hiding neighbours and colleagues targeted by the Memory Police. These and other scenes throughout the book are bound to draw parallels to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany; it comes as no surprise to learn that Ogawa is deeply fascinated by the extraordinary courage of those who hid Anne Frank, her family and others in the secret annexe.
But such acts of courage are the exception in the book. There is an overwhelming sense of resignation and even apathy as people comply with the authorities’ orders, and their world becomes smaller and smaller. Quite literally. Since the disappearance of maps, people no longer remember what lies beyond the nearby mountains; neither do they think to find out for themselves — they just remain within their own isolated community. When things like flowers or even animals disappear, it doesn’t seem important. Life carries on. People soon forget what has been lost and manage to get by without. But the disappearances don’t stop there and soon affect the physical self — by which time it’s too late.
The memory loss that occurs so swiftly in the book reminds us to reflect on the role of memory in the real world. The number of eye witnesses to some of history’s worst moments is diminishing; history now has to compete with the deliberate noise of fake news, so-called alternative narratives and the wilful denial of historical facts. We certainly don’t need to live in the past, but without memory and reflection we also lack context and value. How will current and future generations remember history and learn from it? This the question the book leaves lingering.
When I first read the book, images of the Australian wildfires were shocking the world. It struck me then that the book’s disappearances can be viewed through the lens of the climate breakdown our planet is experiencing right now. Something — a species of plant, insect or animal disappears. Often, we don’t even notice it. If we do, we’re initially saddened, possibly angry, but then go about life as usual. The disappearance remains abstract and doesn’t seem to affect us in any tangible way. At least for the moment.
I revisited the book during the recent lockdown. The months at home were an opportunity to notice and take comfort from nature, even if just through a window. The streets became quieter and the birdsong louder. But as the emergence from lockdown continues (for the moment), will nature be forgotten completely? In the rush to get moving, take to the skies and refire the economy, will anyone remember burning forests?
Like Ogawa’s other novels*, The Memory Police is an absorbing, profound story told in very light, even sparse language. And the message I take from it is also a very simple one. Use your voice. Use it to speak out against injustice. Before you find that you can’t.
*I can also recommend The Housekeeper and the Professor and Hotel Iris.
photo caption quote from The Memory Police, page 92