My first read of the year was Yogo Ogawa’s 1994 masterpiece The Memory Police. Translated from the Japanese in 2019 by Stephen Snyder, this is a mesmerizing book that submerged me in its dystopic winter. It is the story of a female novelist in an unnamed island where things have begun to disappear: hats, birds, photographs and even boats. These disappearances are enforced by The Memory Police, a group of uniformed men that make sure every item that is listed as disappeared is vanished from the island and, most importantly, to take away the few people who are able to remember them.
In Ogawa’s world, the disappearance of something means that almost instantly people are rid of their memory about the objects. We don’t know the reason, but as soon as people find out there has been a disappearance, they start to forget how that thing looked, felt, smelled like or even if it reminded them of something else. I read The Memory Police as a fable and at times it even felt like a fairy tale, in which the pact with the reader is concise, for the reader knows it’s up to him or her to answer most of the questions that a typical dystopic novel would answer: who are The Memory Police? Why can some people remember things and some cannot? What has happened on this island that is so like Japan in its earthquakes and its traditions? Why does the winter last so long?
Apart from the obvious political interpretations one might make of the novel —how obliterating people’s past and what ties them together as a community makes them vulnerable to tyranny— Ogawa’s book seems to dig deeper into the importance and the capriciousness of memory and the role of fiction in our lives.
In the plot, the unnamed protagonist finds out her editor, R, is one of those people who can remember, so she decides to hide him in a secret room in her home with the help of her only friend, an old man whom she has known since her childhood. The three of them begin to think more about the disappearances in the company of R, and together they will make a quiet resistance to the Memory Police. Friendship and love are key elements in Ogawa’s novel, and so are death and loss, two themes that surround this island in which things keep disappearing: novels, fruit, roses, candy, ribbons…
The main question I asked myself when reading The Memory Police was, who are we without our memory? The importance of disappearances in the is not in the objects themselves, for one can certainly live without roses or boats; but about the things they mean to us: a fragrance that reminds of our mother, candy that makes us think os a specific day in our childhood, a boat to associate with traveling. Who are we without our memory extending like thousands of invisible strings, connecting us to the world?
I found Yoko Ogawa’s novel a quiet and minimalist masterpiece. Each word seems to flow so easily, each phrase is beautiful yet unadorned. It is one of those books in which you have to surrender your expectations, for it is not really a dystopic novel, but more of fable, a modern fairy tale in which we find many of our current issues reflected. Compelling and haunting, The Memory Police is one of the most subversive and scary novels I have read in a while.