The Memory Police warns of dystopic policing and the loss of agency

Review: Yōko Ogawa’s novel is a terrifying story about memory, erasure and trauma.

What would happen if your memories were stolen? If everything around you – birds, perfume, and even roses – disappeared, never to be remembered again?

On the unnamed island in Yōko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police, this is exactly what happens. The Memory Police take away everything, leaving nothing but empty spaces on shelves and gashes in the public memory of the island’s residents. 

The Memory Police, originally published in 1994, makes a comeback this year, translated for the first time into English by Stephen Snyder. The Japanese author has received nearly every literary award there is to be given in Japan, making her a renowned novelist in Japan as well as abroad. Her other works include The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003), The Diving Pool (2008) and Revenge (2013).

Ogawa begins her novel with a memory, one of an exchange between a mother and daughter reminiscing about a time when there were more things in this world, before the Memory Police. The mother tries to explain what the things she secretly kept once were before they disappeared,” trying to describe perfume to her daughter who never knew the word nor the smell. The daughter loses her mother and then her father at a young age, adding to the list of things once loved that have disappeared, fading away” like the lost memories of birds. She becomes a writer and remains unnamed throughout the novel, building relationships with an old man she meets who used to operate a ferry and becoming close with her editor, R.

All three of the characters endanger their lives as they challenge the Memory Police by hiding, writing, and most of all – remembering. 

The female protagonist is caring and concerned, more conscious of the harm committed by the Memory Police than the other passive citizens. She protects others who are targeted by the Memory Police at her own risk and goes face-to-face with the brutality of their surveillance and erasure throughout the novel. Yet, she is still affected by the loss of memory – struggling to remember the objects and ideas erased. As she writes her own novel, which serves as part of the text for Ogawa’s novel, she challenges the notions of voice and agency. The protagonist that Ogawa wrote and the protagonist in the in-text novel parallel each other, both asking: when do you fight and when do you give up? But between the narratives of the main protagonist and her own novel, reading this becomes confusing to follow and the purpose of including the written novel is lost. 

The reasons why the Memory Police arrived are never shared, how they erase the memories never explained and possibly, never understood. What makes Ogawa’s novel an enticing read are these unanswered questions about the Memory Police and the island, but by the end, I was left unsatisfied and hungry for answers. While the novel stays close to the emotions and perspective of the protagonist, we only know as much as she lets us – very little. Although there is no gratification in knowing the why or how, the story makes you value the parts of everyday life that could go missing. If you couldn’t remember what you were forced to unknow, would you miss it? 

The Memory Police prods at the value of memory and the power of the mind, bringing the reader to a realisation of trauma through the story told by the protagonist. After 25 years, this novel is now being published in English, coming at a time when regimes in our own lives have the power to rewrite narratives and take away everything. The Memory Police have the power to make things disappear from the island and from memory, and perhaps, this is not too far from our own reality. 

The Memory Police will be released from Penguin Random House 6 August 2019.


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