‘The Memory Police’ by Yōko Ogawa (Review – IBP 2020, Number Four)

I hope you all enjoyed your relaxing stay in Barcelona, and had a nice drink or two with our friend Mac, because things are about to take another turn for the uncomfortable.  Today sees us arriving on a strange island where anyone expecting all the conveniences of modern living are likely to be sorely disappointed.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, the longer we stay there, the more things we’re going to have to do without, and the weather looks like it’s about to take a turn for the worse, too.  Unhappy?  Well, I can tell you where to go if you feel like making a complaint, but I wouldn’t recommend it – this is a place where you really should keep your head down…

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
– Harvill Secker, translated by Stephen Snyder
What’s it all about?
On a mysterious island, the locals are afflicted with a strange phenomenon whereby objects drop out of their memories overnight.  Everyone immediately struggles to remember what the objects were for and if they possess any, they dispose of them as soon as possible.  The memories gradually disappear, and within a short space of time, it’s as if the objects never existed at all.

However, when I said ‘everyone’, that’s not quite true.  A few people do retain their memories, and are reluctant to dispose of their possessions, but they have to be very careful because of the Memory Police.  This shadowy organisation controls the island and hunts down anyone who seems unable to let go of what they are supposed to have forgotten, appearing suddenly and bursting into houses:

As though his words had been some sort of signal, the five officers marched into the house without even removing their shoes.  Suddenly, the corridor was filled with the clatter of boots and guns.
p.12 (Harvill Secker, 2019)

Anyone found to have illicit goods, or knowledge, is taken away, and (as is the case with the ‘disappeared’ objects) they are never heard from again.

It’s against this background that Ogawa tells us the story of her narrator, a woman who writes novels for a living.  While she dutifully forgets disappeared objects like most people, her mother did not, so when she finds out that her editor, R., is one of those who remembers everything that has vanished, she decides to help him out before he’s taken away.  With the assistance of an old family friend, she sets up a safe place for R., and his possessions, but with the disappearances becoming ever more serious, and the Memory Police ever more ruthless, we wonder how long they can all hold out.

It wouldn’t take the closest of readers to realise that one way of interpreting The Memory Police is as a critique of totalitarian states.  From their first appearance, the police, with their smart uniforms and stomping boots, instil fear into reader and narrator alike, a clever blend of SS officers and Cybermen (OK, maybe that’s just me…).  The concept of only being allowed to remember what you’re supposed to is very 1984, but it’s the rounding up of those who are ‘different’ that is truly chilling.  I don’t think anyone really needs me to point out real-life parallels here…

Ogawa creates her world superbly, and there’s a profound sense of despair pervading the novel.  It appears as if winter is here for good, and the gloomy atmosphere has its effect on the islanders:

As I climbed down the hill and made my way through town, the sun was setting.  The island was quieter in the evening.  People coming home from work walked with their heads lowered, children hurried along.  Even the sputtering engines of market trucks, empty after the day’s sales, were muffled and forlorn.
Silence fell around us all, as though we were steeling ourselves for the next disappearance, which would no doubt come – perhaps even tomorrow.
So it was that evening came to the island. (pp.18/9)

When the narrator eventually makes her way to the headquarters of the Memory Police, it turns out to be as forbidding, and foreboding, as you’d expect, with shades of Kafka in the sullen guards and the progression from flunky to more powerful officials (in fact, there’s more than a nod to the Czech writer in many places).

Surprisingly, though, the title is actually slightly deceiving, and the focus on totalitarian regimes actually gives way to another theme.  In truth, The Memory Police has far less to do with the police than with memory, and how it affects our lives.  Initially, the narrator and the old man simply get on with their lives, shrugging off the loss of birds, perfume or hats (which they don’t really remember anyway).  Their meetings even take place on the old ferry the man used to operate (until boats were disappeared, that is) without either of them feeling the slightest tinge of nostalgia.

It’s only when the narrator becomes closer to R. that she begins to doubt herself and wonder whether all this forgetting is natural.  Hidden inside a small room between floors in her house, the editor desperately tries to make her remember, urging her to hold some of the disappeared objects:

“Their essence doesn’t change.  If you keep them, they’re bound to bring you something in return.  I don’t want to see any more of your memories lost.”

However, his urging seems to be in vain:

“No,” I said, shaking my head wearily.  “Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph.  No memories, no response.  They’re nothing more than pieces of paper.  A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again.  That’s how it is when something disappears, though I suppose you can’t understand…” (p.95)

Nevertheless, she keeps on trying, just on the off chance that the images haven’t gone completely, but are hidden somewhere deep at the bottom of her memory.

This second layer to the novel is enhanced by another thread, namely the novel the narrator is working on at the time of these events.  A wonderful piece of fiction in its own right (if I’d come across it in a short-story collection, I’d have been impressed), it tells the tale of a woman who falls in love with her typing teacher and decides to use her machine to communicate with him, rather than speaking.  What starts off quirky eventually turns much darker, becoming a story of domination and submission, and as the writer struggles to finish it, we see the parallels with what’s going on outside – or is it inside?

If you have a free day coming up (as many of you undoubtedly do), and you don’t have any plans, you could do far worse than set the time aside to try The Memory Police.  It’s beyond belief that it took a quarter of a century for the book to make it into English, and that such a successful writer (with an impressive back catalogue of work in Japanese) still only has five books available in English.  If anyone out there has Stephen Snyder’s ear, you might just want to suggest that he make some changes to his routine and start work on some more of Ogawa’s fiction.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who would be very grateful 🙂

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Oh, yes.  Easily my favourite so far, this would be very hard done by not to make the final six.  In fact, I suspect that it will be there or thereabouts when I’m considering my personal winner for this year.

Will it make the shortlist?
It must do, surely?  As you may have heard one or twice (or twenty times) on the blog, I was rather unhappy at the omission of a plethora of wonderful (and eligible) books by female Japanese writers last year.  I suspect that they’ll be making up for that oversight this time around, and a high-profile writer like Ogawa (whose last book, Revenge, was shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the spiritual forerunner of the current contest) would make for an excellent finalist.

You know it makes sense.

Now, having finished off our duties on the island, I’m sure there’s something I’m forgetting… Ah, yes – we still have nine more trips to make.  Let’s head off again, then, this time to Georgia, where we’ll be having an extended stay with an expansive and intriguing family (apparently they have some excellent chocolate, so that’s something to look forward to).

As fascinating as that sounds, though, you’ll have to wait a while for the next stage of the journey.  Next week sees me taking a short break from International Booker duties – for something completely different 🙂

11 thoughts on “‘The Memory Police’ by Yōko Ogawa (Review – IBP 2020, Number Four)

  1. What I read of the book myself, even in the quotes you highlight above, I don’t know, to me every sentence fell completely flat.


    1. Peter – I’m not claiming that this is as well-written at a sentence level as many of the other books on the longlist, but as a whole it works well, and the flatness is, I think, part of the effect. I can see how that might not work for everyone, though. Definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts 🙂


  2. I read this last year and found it extremely though-provoking. It made me think of the hard time the elderly or just older people have when it comes to mild memory loss, the fact that nearly everyone over 80 has some form of dementia. If suddenly as in this premise here, the new normal is memory loss, society then treats people who experience memory loss as normal, and I couldn’t help but think that is actually a good thing.


    1. Claire – It’s an interesting take on the idea, and I think it works particularly well as most readers would have been expecting more of the totalitarian regime aspect of the story – a very intriguing novel indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Claire – A very good chance, I’d say, even if I’m not convinced that it will win. As another comment said, the writing is probably where it’s not quite as good as some of the other contenders.

          Liked by 1 person

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