blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Yōko Ogawa, trans. Stephen Snyder
Pantheon Books, 2019 (original text 1994)

spacer The Memory (Pantheon Books, 2019)

“And what will happen”―asks the narrator of Yōko Ogawa’s haunting, totalitarian fable―“if words disappear?” In The Memory Police, a Japanese novel originally published in 1994 and just translated into English by Stephen Snyder, things disappear from the world all the time. The inhabitants of an unnamed island wake up every now and then without being able to recall what perfume is, what birds look like, what a ribbon is supposed to do. The memories are gone, but the objects remain, seemingly useless remnants of a past no one can remember. As the memories start to fade, en masse, the islanders gather what’s left “to burn, or bury, or toss into the river,” so they won’t be too perturbed when they see a strange bottle full of fragrant liquid on their shelves, with no clue of how it got there or what it’s for.

Memories, though, can be stubborn, and some of the island’s people can still remember everything perfectly, making them a problem for the authoritarian Memory Police, who are tasked with eliminating all evidence of the objects that disappear and the people who still remember them.

Sparse and unsettling, The Memory Police takes this premise and builds a world of slow, mundane horror, where a people’s history, culture, and language become forfeit to forces they cannot control. Ogawa never defines the precise cause of the disappearances, or what happens to the people spirited away by the Memory Police, and that makes their steady march into obscurity all the more terrifying. With every loss, the island residents settle for a smaller world, becoming more and more untethered from their identities. Ogawa strips away the touchstones that would normally ground us—we’re on an island with no clear history or geography, most of the characters go unnamed, and the time period has no settled feel. Without memory, without a past, it is impossible to tell whether the island has always been this way or if its distinguishing features have been lost so long ago that no one remembers them. In The Memory Police, the subtlety and specificity comes through only in the psychological terror Ogawa builds; the outer world is insignificant when the people of the island are losing a bit more of it―and their minds―day by day.

The disappearances reverberate in unexpected ways, as many of the residents don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what has been lost, and the novel sings when it focuses on the loss of imagination. The main character, an anonymous narrator, makes her living writing small-scale novels, penning stories primarily for the benefit of her editor, a man named R. While her readership on the island is limited, the narrator enjoys writing for its own sake. As she often says, she has no idea where the story will go, and in this world, any innovation feels like a defiant act against the entropy that’s eating the island. Although she tries not to dwell on her anxiety of “words disappear[ing],” an unspoken urgency drives her work. Things “are disappearing more quickly than they are being created,” she says. “What can the people on this island create?” As ideas trickle out of the people’s minds, she worries, they will have nothing left with which to rebuild. “We can’t compensate for the things that get lost . . . and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.”

That sense of helpless dread saturates the novel, and Ogawa lets it slowly simmer, never quite allowing the characters a proper outlet for their fear. While there’s a bit of organized rebellion against the Memory Police, Ogawa keeps it restrained and often purposefully veers away from what readers who have been primed on the boom of dystopian fiction in Western television and films most want to see. Often Ogawa tantalizes us with sudden shifts in the status quo that could take the story into fresh territory: the island’s inhabitants lose another memory, or the narrator comes agonizingly close to learning more about the island’s mysteries. But the moments pass; the characters settle down again and just do their best to adjust. In this way, The Memory Police is more Kafka than Orwell. The regime that controls life on the island has no governing ideology that we can discern, and their justification for imposing strict rules about making sure things on the island really disappear has the same circular logic that governs Kafka’s The Castle. The bureaucracy has decided it is for the best, and the people of the island cannot hold onto the idea of resistance long enough to truly challenge the authorities by holding onto illicit objects. “For us,” the narrator says, “the more pressing concerns were whether we would be able to find something . . . to have for dinner or when the Memory Police would make their next visit.” Ogawa nails the psychology that can proliferate in oppressive systems: to ensure their survival, people may willingly give up exactly what hurts most to lose.

The oddly restrained pacing helps convey the characters’ resignation to life on the island. Even the strangest, most frightening circumstances can become routine, and the cycle of terror and anticlimax does its work on both the characters and the reader, mimicking the numbing strain of living under the surveillance state―or even, on a smaller scale, the dull pain of watching a grandparent lose their memories. Ogawa focuses on the smallest, day-to-day details, which makes The Memory Police work as much more than just a cautionary political tale. Dystopian or sci-fi fans may be frustrated with the lack of answers in how the world operates, but patient readers will find worthwhile reflections on technology and tradition, love and loss, identity and isolation that mark Ogawa as a writer interested in conflicts revolving around self-deception.

At the crossroads of all these themes are the disappearing objects themselves. Ogawa does a wonderful trick of anthropomorphizing them on occasion, giving them arguably more humanity than the characters exhibit themselves. The narrator sees these forgotten objects―salvaged by her mother―as “cower[ing]” or “fearful.” Hidden in cabinets or buried in secret compartments, they are always “absolutely still, like little animals in hibernation, sending me no signal at all.” The narrator has no way to interface with them; their meaning is missing, and she cannot manage to fit the lost objects back into her life. But she does sense a corresponding loss in herself:

“It’s true, I know, that there are more gaps in the island than there used to be. When I was a child, the whole place seemed . . . how can I put this? . . . a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance.”

Her editor, R, pushes the narrator to hold onto what she can. Both R and the narrator’s mother remember everything that has been lost, but they must hide from the Memory Police and pretend the disappearances don’t affect them. For those who remember, the objects themselves become talismans to hide and protect, whereas those who forget often cannot get rid of the objects fast enough. When the concept of a rose starts slipping from the islanders’ minds, the people gather in droves in the middle of town to tear the petals off their rose bushes and let them slide away into the ocean. On the flip side, R takes to hiding objects in the cramped room he lives in to avoid the police, filling up so much space there’s barely room for him to sleep.

Ogawa excels at creating simple but indelible images like this, and the novel is best read as a series of tableaus that pierce us with their strange and timeless appeal. Ogawa captures these moments in a cool, sterile voice, evoking the beauty of forgotten objects while draining them of life. It precisely captures how the characters experience this Great Forgetting. At one point in the novel, the narrator and an old man she has befriended play music boxes over and over, trying to recover the memories they once had of them. More than that, they’re after the emotions they’re supposed to feel about an object they only know secondhand. They are encouraged by R, who insists that “important things remain important,” even if our knowledge of them has been lost. But with each disappearance, their experiences slip away, and with them, the accumulation of what makes them who they are—what, R would say, ultimately makes them human.

But Ogawa does not let R have the final word, and she continues to ask hard questions of her readers long after lesser novelists would have been satisfied. The Memory Police probes the idea that our humanity resides exclusively in our ability to create meaning, to imbue objects with a sense of importance. Isn’t there more to us? If we are left with nothing external to ourselves, no world to act upon, do we still have value? Ogawa draws a world for us in which alienation feels like gravity, pulling on everyone equally, both those who have forgotten and those who remember. R, feeling more and more withdrawn from a world that is moving on without him, turns increasingly to treating forgotten objects with an idolatrous care. His vision for the future is to seal the past away and tend to it long enough that it can be restored. But a past without a people is as broken as a people without a past. These moments highlight the tension between modernity and tradition, showing us that disentangling ourselves from either the past or the future severs something we are unlikely to find again. In either case, we are telling ourselves rootless stories without depth, turning to dirty mirrors in the hope of getting a clear view of who we are.

Ultimately, The Memory Police shows us a world where words may, in fact, disappear, along with our ability to tell them. We have little impact on whether the stories we share find an audience or a permanent place in humanity’s collective memory, and Ogawa’s dystopia confronts us with the histories we lose or forget or erase on a daily basis. But even if what we write seems no more significant than a “chain of words,” the emotions we felt while writing them are still somehow preserved inside, too fragile to name. The narrator pushes through with her own writing; in spite of her increasingly limited ability to put her feelings into words, she still wrings meaning out of the loss, creating something new that cannot fully be erased. It’s that inner layer of The Memory Police where the real action happens, in the spaces between what the characters need and want, what they hope for and what they are able to say.

“Your heart is doing everything it can to preserve its existence,” R tells the narrator. “No matter how many memories these men take away, they’ll never reduce it to nothing.”

“I hope that’s true,” says the narrator. We must all hope so―and hope it is enough.  

Yoko Ogawa is the author of The Memory Police (Pantheon Books, 2019, translated by Stephen Snyder), as well as Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales (2013), Hotel Iris (2010), The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (2008), and The Housekeeper and the Professor (2008), adapted into the film The Professor’s Beloved Equation, all translated by Stephen Snyder and published by Picador Press. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Since 1988 she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award. She lives in Ashiya, Japan, with her husband and son.

Stephen Snyder teaches Japanese literature at Middlebury College. His translations include works by Kenzaburō Ōe, Ryū Murakami, Natsuo Kirino, and Miri Yu.

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