Yoko Ogawa’s ‘The Memory Police’ is a simply written novel that limns the ways that people and societies deal with loss

February 26, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 26, 2020

The basic premise of Yoko Ogawa’s short allegorical novel The Memory Police is utterly fantastic: On a large unnamed island, possibly part of Okinawa Prefecture, items and concepts vanish at sporadic intervals. But this foundation comes with a nasty twist: A paramilitary organization, the eponymous Memory Police, enforces these disappearances, destroying objects and imprisoning people who perpetuate any reminder that these things once existed or may still exist elsewhere.

Ogawa, in a 2019 translation from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, renders this story in plain, straightforward prose. Her narrator is an unassuming young writer living in isolation in the home where her late parents raised her. Aside from an unnamed elderly man, the husband of her late nanny, and R, her editor, the writer has no friends; she only rarely talks with her neighbors.

The old man and the local library collect copies of her books, but they arouse no excitement and evidently go unread by anyone other than R. The writer does nothing to draw attention to herself, and she has no sense that anything about her life might be lacking.

Despite her modest existence, the writer finds herself endangered. Her parents both have various connections to disappeared items, which prompts a sudden search of the writer’s home by the Memory Police. And when one of her acquaintances is targeted by the police, the writer is forced to decide how far she’s willing to go to protect an innocent person from the forces of oppression.

The disappearances occur seemingly without rhyme or reason, sometimes taking a branch of the animal kingdom, a specific kind of gemstone or simply the concept of perfume. The populace discovers through an unspoken process what has been removed and then proceeds to eliminate anything that embodies the verboten thing, as in this early passage:

It took patience and concentration to figure out what was gone. I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbors were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” — everything.

“The birds,” muttered the ex-milliner across the way. “And good riddance. I doubt anyone will miss them.” He adjusted the scarf around his neck and sneezed quietly. Then he caught sight of me. Perhaps recalling that my father had been an ornithologist, he gave me an awkward little smile and went off to work. When the others outside realized what had disappeared, they too seemed relieved. They returned to their morning duties, leaving me alone to stare at the sky.

The little brown creature flew in a wide circle and then vanished to the north. I couldn’t recall the name of the species, and I found myself wishing I had paid better attention when I’d been with my father at the observatory. I tried to hold on to the way it looked in flight or the sound of its chirping or the colors of its feathers, but I knew it was useless. This bird, which should have been intertwined with memories of my father, was already unable to elicit any feeling in me at all. It was nothing more than a simple creature, moving through space as a function of the vertical motion of its wings.

That afternoon I went to the market to do my shopping. Here and there I saw groups of people holding cages, with parakeets, Java sparrows, and canaries fluttering nervously inside, as if they knew what was about to happen. The people holding the cages were quiet, almost dazed, perhaps still trying to adjust to this new disappearance.

Each owner seemed to be saying goodbye to his bird in his own way. Some were calling their names, others rubbing them against their cheeks, still others giving them a treat, mouth to beak. But once these little ceremonies were finished, they opened the cages and held them up to the sky. The little creatures, confused at first, fluttered for a moment around their owners, but they soon were gone, as if drawn away into the distance.

When they were gone, a calm fell as though the air itself were breathing with infinite care. The owners turned for home, empty cages in hand.

There are rules but not limits to the disappearances. At one point, after roses vanish, Ogawa creates the breathtaking image of a river entirely covered by petals ripped from a garden. At another, calendars are banned, and the writer and her neighbors wonder how this will affect the passage of time. They find to their silent dismay that winter extends indefinitely; grocery shelves gradually empty, and acquiring even a bare minimum of stock food items becomes increasingly onerous.

The writer is laboring on a novel about a young woman, a socially isolated individual like herself, who has lost her voice and is reduced to expressing herself exclusively through typewritten messages. Excerpts from the work in progress appear at intervals throughout The Memory Police. At times this story-in-a-story parallels developments in the life of the writer; at others, it turns them on their heads.

Part of the brilliance of The Memory Police is that it can be read in many different ways. On one level, it’s a meditation on the process of grieving, whether for someone — the writer’s parents, say — or something, such as the abandoned observatory where her father once labored. On another, it’s a consideration of the toll that authoritarian societies inevitably extracts from every resident, no matter how meek and obedient she is.

My library catalogued The Memory Police as science fiction, which doesn’t quite fit; the book is more aptly labeled speculative fiction, which encompasses fantasy, science fiction and horror.

Regardless of classification, The Memory Police is a fast-reading tale that conjures some striking imagery and despite its spare prose. And given its English-language publication in late 2019, as a new American presidential campaign was beginning to spin up, it reminds us of the cost we pay by allowing propagandists and others who despise facts to define everyday reality.

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