Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. While the book was released in its original language (Japanese) in 1994, it was translated into English and published last year – a gap of nearly 25 years. And yet nothing feels outdated about this novel, its themes are quite relevant even today.
At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.
Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.
The narrator’s mother was one of those whose memories remained intact and was therefore captured by the police. In the opening pages our narrator harks back to her childhood and recalls a particular moment with her mother when the latter displays a chest of drawers containing objects that no longer exist on the island. These objects – perfume bottle, ribbon, bell, stamp – fill our narrator with a sense of wonder but she cannot conjure up any memories, even though her mother is nostalgic about them. The fate of the narrator’s mother after her refusal to conform is not surprising and very soon the father, an ornithologist, is also whisked away.
Indeed, one of the first disappearances on the island the reader is introduced to is birds.
I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died. Most people on the island found some other line of work quickly when a disappearance affected their job, but I don’t think that would have been the case for him. Identifying those wild creatures was his one true gift.
Meanwhile, in the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R also cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.
Enlisting the help of an old caretaker, who is like family, she builds a secret, functional room in her own house. R installs himself there and gradually adjusts to this new life.
The rest of the novel then revolves around the fate of all the three – the narrator, the caretaker and R – and whether they will be able to hold on to this secret.
Objects, meanwhile, continue to vanish at an alarming rate to the point where one of the disappearances impacts our narrator directly – novels (‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.’)
At first, she has no issues losing her memory of things and adjusting to the new normal. But this becomes increasingly difficult in her subsequent interactions with R, who coaxes and encourages her to understand the significance of her memories and value them.
This specifically comes to the fore when one of the objects made to vanish is photographs, an occurrence which disturbs R greatly.
As I was gathering all the albums and photos in the house, R made a desperate effort to stop me.
“Photographs are precious…They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”
“Yes, I know, and that’s why I’ve always been very careful with them. They brought back wonderful memories every time I looked at them, memories that made my heart ache. As I wander through my sparse forest of memories, photographs have been my most reliable compass. But it’s time to move on. It’s terrible to lose a compass, but I have no strength to resist the disappearances.”
Interspersed with this narrative is a glimpse into the novel, our narrator is writing. It’s about a young typist who has lost her voice, is in a relationship with her teacher and can only communicate by typing out the words. But what begins as a simple love story morphs into something darker involving capture and submission. In terms of atmosphere and the theme of control there are similarities between our narrator’s novel and her real life. But other than that, I am not sure that this ‘novel within a novel’ really added much to the overall storytelling.
In stark contrast to the feral tone in Melchor’s Hurricane Season, Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. One way of looking at the novel is that it is a statement on totalitarian regimes and their impact on ordinary people – there are those who adapt, those who resist and go into hiding. These are themes and reactions universal even today.
But other than the one chapter where our narrator visits the headquarters of the Memory Police and experiences firsthand the menacing and oppressive atmosphere of the place, the novel is more concerned with the significance of memory loss and what it means to people in everyday life.
Ultimately who stands to lose more – the people who easily forget and have nothing to hold on to, or those who remember and possibly carry a heavier burden because of it?