Books

Yoko Ogawa
The Memory Police

On an unnamed island, in an unnamed country, many kinds of things are disappearing, a phenomenon that seems to be accelerating since it started, about 15 years before this novel opens. It takes in whole classes of things: birds, ferries, photos. Put like that, the premise of The Memory Police – a novel published in 1994 by the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa but only now translated into English, by Stephen Snyder – sounds as though it could extend in nearly any direction. It may stand in for fascism; mass extinction and climate change; the heat death of the universe; the ugliness of ageing; cultural memory and national forgetting; concentration camps: you name it.

While fascism takes the main share of the metaphorical territory, The Memory Police also performs the magic of extending in all those ways at once, which has its risks and benefits – one of the latter being that risky fiction is often inherently interesting, whether or not the reader judges the risk to have paid off. On the one hand, you get the pleasure of never quite settling your readerly questions of meaning, tone and style, as when aspects of one kind of story – a person being harboured in a secret room – are interrupted by aspects of another kind of story, in which a tsunami strikes and causes the trapdoor to the secret room to need repairing. As with Ogawa’s other books – which vary wildly in tone and topic, some of them about sexual violence and others rather sweet, particularly The Housekeeper and the Professor – her prose is always both stripped back and dense with potential meanings; the reader goes to strange places and does a lot of satisfying work.

On the other hand, it can be hard to get a good grip on this novel. You see that this problem is closely related to the qualities that recommend it – on the upside, there’s its slipperiness; on the downside, it’s the same – so I hesitate to point it out. The terror of fascism and the delicate, sometimes even whimsical notion of living in a state of constant forgetting – it’s a tough needle to thread, and keep threading, and it produces effects that don’t always sit comfortably.

The narrator, a novelist, has perhaps more reason than most to dislike the unpredictability of memory on her island. It’s not because she is a novelist – although there is that – but because her mother was a rare(ish) person who retained her memories after a mass incident of forgetting. She was eventually removed from her family and probably killed by the titular Memory Police, the mysterious organisation that enforces the lack of memory in the citizens they govern.

One of the book’s strangest and bleakest subplots describes the narrator’s writing life; she has completed three novels, one of them about a vanished lover, another about a lost leg, and a third about a younger brother suffering from a disease that is destroying his chromosomes. How can we write about ideas other than loss and forgetting in a society that is predicated on them? The protagonist seems doomed to circle in her fiction the spaces where her memories once were.

Indeed, few people on the island are in a strong position to think meaningfully about their escalating problem because the substance of existence is coming out from inside them, and any challenges to their circumstance are met with punishment. At the start of the book, the narrator, who is largely alone in the world, tells the reader that she believes she has cousins living on the far side of the mountains whom she has never met. No one knows what lies on the other side of the mountains, partly because the physical conditions dissuade people from crossing, but partly because maps themselves disappeared long ago.

It is hard to watch characters being starved of the past, and of any place where they might reflect on their starvation. This may be why the narrator, with the help of an unnamed old man, resolves to save R, her publisher, who also retains his memories, and why the family they form in the middle of the book often leads to the strongest scenes. These contain both the warmest textures and the deepest ideas. “Like a cave floating in the sky,” says R approvingly when he sees his hidden room for the first time, presumably the place where he will die. Together in a protected space, ideas can take root, and be furthered by continuing discussion.

Like another recent novel by an accomplished novelist that focused on people with no personal or cultural memory – Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried GiantThe Memory Police seems likely to divide readers and provoke discussion. I loved the ambiguity and stubborn slowness of Ishiguro’s novel, and am still amazed that anyone could have experienced it differently; in fact, I know in my heart that they are just reading it wrong, failing to recognise the rich picture that I understood was in there from the start.

I also can’t remember a single scene from The Buried Giant, only a weird idea of having loved the book, whereas The Memory Police is full of vivid images that any reader would have a hard time not thinking about. Many of them illustrate the mechanism of forgetting, which the reader understands increasingly as the plot moves forward. Citizens of the island simply wake with the sense that something has changed, but the disappearances manifest in a range of ways, many of which make the citizens complicit. When perfume is disappeared, people gather by the river and ceremonially empty the contents of the bottles, some of them first holding them to their noses, trying in vain to take in one last whiff. “The river reeked for two or three days afterward, and some fish died. But no one seemed to notice. You see, the very idea of ‘perfume’ had been disappeared from their heads.”

When roses disappear, the river runs red. One person says, “We should take a picture.” Another says approvingly, “It’s the most beautiful disappearance ever.”

Ronnie Scott

Harvill Secker, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Ronnie Scott