The Memory Police

The Memory Police

The Memory Police
1994 ∙ Yoko Ogawa ∙ 288 pgs

When I purchased this novel a couple years back — and it sat on my “shelf” the entire time as my reading velocity slowed considerably in the pandemic — I thought it was a relatively new book. When, in fact, it was only translated into English in 2019, but existed in its original Japanese since its initial publishing in 1994. How was I to know, when the thing was up for the 2020 International Booker Prize? A book that was already 25 years old? That time-shifted fact alone changed a good deal of the novel for me. It wasn’t something written in the new century about the new century — filled with mobile technology and ubiquitous computers and whatnot — or even something written in 2019 looking back at 1994, but a novel actually written in the old century. A time sitting right on the verge of a technological revolution and the ushering in of all sorts of stuff that would have changed the narrative of this book considerably. This small island city off of Japan, isolated from the mainland and the rest of the known world because the world-connecting mobile network and knowledge-filled Internet hadn’t yet been invented. Or at least largely or widely used.

Because if the World Wide Web had been something that existed in this world in 1994, the entirety of the plot would have crumbled faster than the items that randomly vanish from the islanders’ lives. And it’s this plot that is the intriguing entry into this novel. The conceit is that on an arbitrary schedule, items “disappear” from the island. The items themselves don’t vanish into thin air, rather the islander’s ability to understand the items’ purpose, or even the concept of the item, vanishes from their brains. That item is subsequently brought to burn pits and destroyed under the watchful eye of The Memory Police. Whose job it is to ostensibly manage the purge of these disappeared items so as to dampen confusion of the island’s citizens, whose exposure to these items after their disappearance would only challenge their poor heads. And to round up and disappear the people on the island who are somehow immune to the disappearances and retain the memory of disappeared objects, items and concepts. Because, they, like the items themselves are deemed dangerous to the poor forgetter’s health and wellbeing. Or something like that.

It’s all admittedly pretty high concept. Though, like a lot of these types of narratives, not 100% straight-forward in its surface explanation. Our protagonist and narrator, a young novelist (because of course she is), takes these disappearances with a casual detachment. As do most of the citizens. Because once something is gone, any feelings one has toward it vanish with it. Hats are gone? Oh well. Even coming across a stray hat on the street, the characters don’t seem to conceptually understand one puts the thing on one’s head to keep it warm. Weird. Anyhow, it turns out that our narrator’s editor, named R, is one of those who retains all his memories, even after objects vanish. Much like her own mother did. In a decision that still baffles me — other than it’s a very literary decision that furthers the metaphor or parable or whatever — R leaves his family and moves into a secret room below the floorboards in the narrator’s small home. A secret room that was built by the narrator and her friend, The Old Man, specifically to house R and hide him from the Memory Police. Why, you may ask, didn’t they hide him in his own house with his own wife and child? Or, is spending the entirety of the rest of your life in a tiny, dark space between two floors of an apartment, never to see the light of day, a better life than hanging with your family and just pretending to the best of your ability that you don’t remember the disappeared things? I don’t quite get it. Also, the physics and architecture of building a secret room between floors seems like something the Memory Police would figure out pretty quickly if they just took a second, but this is kind of surreal fiction, so I suppose reality plays only a vague role here.

So, once we get to this point of R being under the floorboards, our narrator going about her day writing a little and mostly trying to figure out how to feed and clothe R in conjunction with the Old Man, who lives on a disused ferry boat, we kind of find ourselves in a weird place. And that place is the “Ok, the high concept is out there, now we kind of shift into neutral until the inevitable conclusion.” I feel like this is often the trap these high-minded, surreal stories fall into. The elevator pitch is cool. The initiation of the mechanics of the thing is cool. But then once it’s all out there, we live in this mushy middle where characters wander around and — especially in Japanese books — make and eat a lot of food spelled out in excruciatingly dull detail. And then more kind of twee wandering. Before an event takes place that throws everything off-kilter in the third act and we quickly dissolve into oblivion. Which is literally and exactly what happens in this book.

And, honestly, I think that’s all part of my issue with the tenor of the story. There’s the presence of the Memory Police, who are supposed to be this fascistic force in this society that is suffering the indignity of slowly watching their lives vanish before their eyes. It’s not only random things like harmonicas that are disappearing, but things like roses and birds. Granted, I’m still really fuzzy on how birds vanish. The consumer goods like calendars, and even fruit, the people themselves bring to pits to burn. Because they have lost their attachment to those items and can’t even see what they are when they’re right in front of their faces. But birds? That seems to go against Ogawa’s rules of the world. It’s like the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum is blown to bits. An object — say calendars — is said to have disappeared. So a person looking at a physical calendar will pretty rapidly not understand what it is. So they take it to be burned. Therefore, no calendars. They are forgotten both physically and mentally. Both because they fade from old memories, and are not present to create new ones. Even if those new memories are of a hole-sized place where a calendar once existed. So nothing actually “disappears” physically until it’s taken to be destroyed. In which case it doesn’t exist physically, and the memory of it is erased by whatever phenomenon is causing these forgettings. So there is no proof it ever existed. But birds… People may not recall what a bird is, but you can’t stop birds from migrating over an island. So our narrator can still see birds, but have no idea what they are. But she does in some way because her father was an ornithologist. She vaguely says as much. This is all to say that there are some gaps in the logic as to what is truly disappeared and what is not. Because if the Memory Police caught you with, say, a harmonica — which, as a disappeared item would be considered contraband — they would haul you away. Because they assume you held onto it because it meant something to you. And if it meant something to you, you must have retained memory of vanished items and therefore be dangerous. I guess.

I think that Ogawa struck on something here, but also in trying to be too symbolic in her representation of things like birds and music and the like bumped up against her own narrative rules. And I know this isn’t a hard sci-fi book, and things can and will be more etherial, but the holes in the plot only deepened my dissatisfaction with the languid pacing and odd obsession the author seemed to have with things like typewriters and foodstuffs. Granted I can’t say I disliked the novel, but I just wish there was a bit more of an edge to it. That it wasn’t so incredibly squishy when it came to what people might do to protect those they love. It all seemed just a bit too polite. And perhaps that’s a cultural thing. Or maybe it’s me putting my 2023 lens on a 1994 story and hoping that shit would go down in ways they just didn’t back then. The threat felt existential in many ways. Which is good. But it also lacked that sense of dread and foreboding that generally goes along with it. As if the characters were just kind of resigned to their fate and gingerly went along with it in hopes that they’d wake up from their afternoon nap, stretch and it would all be over.