The Memory Police
This novel which was published in Japanese in 1994, and now in a seamless translation by Stephen Snyder, took twenty five years to reach the English-speaking world. It is still a relevant and sinister story posing questions about who controls us as human beings because, according to Ogawa, our possessions, our thoughts and even our constituent parts are compelled by outside forces to ultimately disappear. It’s deceptive fairytale quality, written in a restrained, unadorned language where chapters mesh effortlessly into the broader narrative, serves to make its sinister aspects all the more frightening.
The drama unfolds on a remote, unnamed island and is narrated by an unnamed central character whose mother was taken away because she did not lose her memory and hoarded objects in a dresser in an attempt to prevent their disappearance. The central character is a novelist and is trying to hold onto memory in a book she is in the process of writing, but the books are fading too and the bookstores nearly deserted, and eventually novels themselves disappear.
Her editor and mentor R is immune to memory loss and as a result is in danger. With the help of an old man she has befriended, the protagonist hides R in a basement in her house. As it is the duty of the Memory Police to enforce the disappearances of things and the memory of them, there is a great build up of tension here as they search the house. The protagonist worries if they will notice one corner of the rug which was turned up and which hid the trapdoor to where R is hiding. This claustrophobic atmosphere is reminiscent of Anne Frank’s Diary which in an interview Ogawa acknowledges as an influence on her writing.
While this is a dystopian parable on a par in its satire on totalitarianism with George Orwell’s Animal Farm or 1984, it is more vague in its delivery. We are not told exactly why things disappear or who the Memory Police, (imitative of Orwell’s Thought Police perhaps) are, and what their goals are specifically. As the story progresses it becomes in places more surreal and lacks the clarity of vision of those previous classics.
The story is set in a pre-computer or mobile phone or word processing era where perpetual snow acts as an atmospheric backdrop, and later an earthquake and the threat of a tsunami heighten the sense of foreboding. There is a macabre twist in the tale when the protagonist’s typing teacher imprisons her and voices are trapped inside the typewriters, and she terrifyingly realises she can no longer recall the sound of her own voice.
R tries to reassure her. Memories are not really gone, he says. ‘They’re just floating in a pool where the sunlight never reaches.’ But things continue to go missing and culminate in the final terror when parts of the protagonist’s body begin to disappear. But she struggles and manages to finish her manuscript with the hope she can leave some trace of her existence behind her.
The islanders inexplicably are pliant. It is as if they are comatose or had consumed Aldous Huxley’s soma from Brave New World. Even one of the islanders, in a supreme irony, rejoices in such bodily loss because now half the arthritis in her knees has gone, and the protagonist herself will have the consolation of no longer having to worry about tears flowing, once her cheeks have disappeared. And when entire bodies are gone no one seems particularly upset as ‘they danced lightly in the air like clumps of dried grass blown along by the wind.’
Published in the Irish Examiner, 18/01/2020