The Memory Police
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The Memory Police: Introduction
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Historical Context of The Memory Police
Other books related to the memory police.
- Full Title: The Memory Police
- When Written: 1994 (translated into English 2019)
- Where Written: Ōsaka, Japan
- When Published: 1994
- Literary Period: Contemporary
- Genre: Dystopian, Science-Fiction, Magical Realism
- Setting: An unnamed island (likely in Japan)
- Climax: The unnamed narrator disappears, and R leaves the hidden room.
- Antagonist: The Memory Police
- Point of View: First Person
Extra Credit for The Memory Police
Eavesdropper. Ogawa doesn’t like being categorized as a strictly feminist writer, even though much of her writing centers on women. Rather, she says that when she is writing, she simply thinks of herself as an “eavesdropper” and that, to create a character, she just “peeks into their world and takes notes.”
Translation Trouble. The Japanese title of The Memory Police loosely translates to “secret” or “crystallization.” In this sense, the original title had less emphasis on the Memory Police themselves and more of a focus on the mysterious forces underpinning the disappearances on the island—supernatural, all-consuming forces that even the Memory Police cannot control.
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How “The Memory Police” Makes You See
By Jia Tolentino
About a decade ago, Seo-Young J. Chu, an English professor at Queens College, published a fascinating and omnivorous book called “ Do Metaphors Dream of Literal Sleep? A Science-Fictional Theory of Representation .” In it, she argues that, contrary to appearances, science fiction is a mimetic discourse—that the “objects of science-fictional representation, while impossible to represent in a straightforward manner, are absolutely real.” Works of science fiction depict objects and phenomena from our world that are “nonimaginary yet cognitively estranging,” she writes, such as the sublime, or “phenomena whose historical contexts have not yet been fully realized,” or events, such as trauma, that are “so overwhelming that they escape immediate experience.”
Chu notes that the world is becoming more cognitively estranging. “The case could be made that everyday reality for people all over the world has grown less and less concretely accessible over the past several centuries and will continue to evolve in that direction,” she writes. “Financial derivatives are more cognitively estranging than pennies. Global climate change is more cognitively estranging than yesterday’s local weather.” If you’re on board an eighteen-hour flight from Singapore to New York, you have multiple plausible answers for simple questions—where you are, what time it is. Science fiction offers a way for these confounding systems and experiences to “acquire proportions that the muscles, nerves, and sinews of our bodies can recognize kinesthetically.” Chu compares the bloodless term “global village” to Isaac Asimov’s planetary city of Trantor , where forty-five billion people live under a single human-made structure. Science fiction, she writes, can “de-cliché” a figure of speech.
I turned to Chu’s book recently because I was trying to get a handle on a device that I had encountered in a handful of novels, one that I found consistently affecting. The first time I’d noticed it was a few years ago, when I read Colson Whitehead’s “ The Underground Railroad .” The novel performs a kind of double transmutation: a long time ago, a complex real-world system —the network of white abolitionists, free black people, and Native Americans who helped slaves escape North—had been converted into the simple metaphor of a railroad; as Whitehead built his novel around actual tunnels and tracks and boxcars, the metaphor was converted back into a set of physical, albeit imaginary, objects. The vividness of Whitehead’s book, and its propulsive sense of thrill and adventure, spring directly from this literalization—from the fearsome puffing trains that carry Cora, the novel’s enslaved protagonist, toward freedom.
A few years later, I read Mohsin Hamid’s “ Exit West .” In this novel, something similar was at work. It addresses a current reality: the complicated, arduous journeys that migrants take around the globe, trying, like those who travelled on the Underground Railroad, to escape death and persecution and move toward liberty and prosperity. No one term could denote all that these journeys entail—smugglers, bribes, boats across the Mediterranean, barefoot walks through the Darién Gap. We simplify the situation by speaking in terms of entry points and gateways. In “Exit West,” Hamid makes these gateways literal: his migrants cross the world through a series of enchanted doors .
Broadly speaking, Whitehead and Hamid are working in the tradition of allegory. Allegory traditionally involves the embodiment of immaterial things: in “ The Pilgrim’s Progress ,” which John Bunyan wrote in the second half of the seventeenth century, the protagonist, Christian, flounders through the Slough of Despond and is pulled out by a character named Help. Another version of allegory cloaks actual people and events in fictional drapery: the nineteenth-century critic John Wilson termed this the “disguising allegory.” But, in Whitehead’s and Hamid’s books, nothing is being disguised, and what is embodied is decidedly material. These novels turn the reader’s attention outward, illuminating not just the nature of the Underground Railroad and of migration pathways, respectively, but of the world that necessitated and produced them.
The effect of the literal trains and the physical doors is to revivify concepts that are so much a part of popular consciousness that they have become abstract, almost generic. In “The Underground Railroad,” the physical details of the railroad are surreal in their mundanity. A skeletal station agent leads Cora into a barn, opens a trapdoor, and walks her down a steep stairwell to a small platform with a single bench. A dark tunnel, twenty feet tall and lined with train tracks, leads into the darkness. This is her first glimpse of the railroad; dazed, she asks the agent who built it. “Who builds anything in this country?” he replies. Cora realizes that this is what it looks like when the prodigious work of enslaved people isn’t stolen from them, “bled from them.” A train comes, black and sooty, with a “triangular snout of the cowcatcher” and a single ragged boxcar. Later on, in another station, Cora finds a set of crimson chairs, a table with a white tablecloth, a crystal pitcher, a basket of fruit. The tenuous workaday miracle of the Underground Railroad is defamiliarized and made immediate; the reader feels the sanctity of this decentralized system, in which even the most minor decisions and kindnesses of unseen individuals left permanent stamps on other people’s lives.
In “Exit West,” Nadia and Saeed, the protagonists, are able to escape a refugee camp in Mykonos because of a Greek girl who spirits them to an unguarded house with a secret door that leads them to London. The doors condense the metamorphosis of migration into an instant: “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit . . . trembling and too spent at first to stand.” Hamid writes that the existence of the magical doors brings a “ twinge of irrational possibility ” to the sight of ordinary doors, turning them into objects “with a subtle power to mock, to mock the desires of those who desired to go far away, whispering silently from its door frame that such dreams were the dreams of fools.” Just like that, the refugee’s situation is intimately close at hand—the agony of seeing roads everywhere, watching planes fly overhead, and knowing that chance has made it so that you, unlike so many others, cannot travel where you please.
Both of these novels also borrow from the tradition of magical realism: as in the works of Gabriel García Márquez or Haruki Murakami , the novels are so flush with detail that their slipstream elements can be folded in undifferentiated. “The Underground Railroad” is set in the eighteen-fifties, roughly, but Cora encounters, in South Carolina, a twelve-story building and a massive sterilization conspiracy akin to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. These phenomena seem just as realistic as the yams she digs up in the plantation to take as fuel for her escape. In “Exit West,” Nadia orders hallucinogenic mushrooms from the Internet, and their appearance in the form of an ordinary package seems no less fanciful than the sudden materialization of a Tamil family on a beach in Dubai. These novels fit into the category that the Stanford professor and critic Ramón Saldívar calls “speculative realism”—literature that deploys the fantastic in the process of turning “away from latent forms of daydream, delusion, and denial, toward the manifold surface features of history.” Both invoke magic to suggest not that the world is magical or ineffable but, rather, that it is knowable, and that it ought to be known.
Earlier this year, Pantheon Books published Yoko Ogawa’s masterly novel “ The Memory Police ,” in an English translation by Stephen Snyder. (It was published in Japanese in 1994.) It’s a dreamlike story of dystopia, set on an unnamed island that’s being engulfed by an epidemic of forgetting. In the novel, the psychological toll of this forgetting is rendered in physical reality: when objects disappear from memory, they disappear from real life.
These disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, a fascist squad that sweeps through the island, ransacking houses to confiscate lingering evidence of what’s been forgotten. Otherwise, Ogawa’s forgetting process is fittingly inexact. Things tend to disappear overnight; in the morning, the islanders—“eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air”—sense that something has changed. They try to acknowledge these disappearances, gathering in the street and talking about what they are losing. Sometimes the natural world complies, as if in a fairy tale: as roses disappear, a blanket of multicolored petals appears in the river. When birds disappear, people open their birdcages and release their confused pets up to the sky. Less poetic objects—stamps, green beans—vanish, too. Ships and maps are gone, so no one can leave or really understand where they are. A period of hazy limbo surrounds each disappearance. There are components to forgetting: the thing disappears, and then the memory of that thing disappears, and then the memory of forgetting that thing disappears, too.
The narrator, who, like the island, is unnamed, is a novelist. Her mother, a sculptor, was murdered by the Memory Police, who regularly round up and disappear the few islanders who still have working memories, and her late father was an ornithologist. (He dies five years before birds disappear and is spared the sight of his life’s work being carted away in garbage bags.) The narrator has published three novels, all of which revolve around disappearance: a piano tuner whose lover has gone missing, a ballerina who lost a leg, a boy whose chromosomes are being destroyed by a disease. Throughout “The Memory Police,” she works on a novel-in-progress about a typist whose voice is vanishing. She’s processing reality through a metaphorical device, re-creating the mechanism of the book that she herself is embedded in.
The narrator spends much of her time with an old man, a former ferryman who lives on a boat that now registers to them only as an unusable object. “I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?” she asks him. She goes on, “It’s subtle but it seems to be speeding up, and we have to watch out. If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.” The old man says yes—when he was a child, the island seemed fuller. “But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow,” he says. Ogawa expresses this attrition in the novel’s unembellished language and the eerie calm that pervades it—as the novel progresses, you feel as if a white fog is slowly thickening. On the island, possibilities are becoming foreclosed both literally and spiritually. When the residents forget birds and roses, they forget what these things conjure inside them: flight, freedom, extravagance, desire.
Allegories of collective degeneration have a tendency toward the phantasmagoric, as in José Saramago’s novel “ Blindness ,” which was published in 1997. In that novel, all the people in an unnamed city lose their physical sight, and the place swiftly descends into hellish depths of degradation and despair. But one of the most affecting aspects of “The Memory Police” is the lack of misery in the narrative. At first, this feels comforting, moving—an assurance that life is worth living even in the most reduced circumstances. The narrator adopts a dog that’s left behind after a kidnapping; she spends days gathering small treasures to throw a birthday party for the old man. The two of them take care of each other, and they protect the man who edits the narrator’s novels: he still has his memories, so they help him to hide from the Memory Police in a secret compartment in the narrator’s house.
But then it begins to seem possible that despair itself has been forgotten—that the islanders can’t agonize over the end that’s coming because the idea of endings has also disappeared. The narrator asks her editor if he thinks that the islanders’ hearts are decaying. “I don’t know whether that’s the right word, but I do know that you’re changing, and not in a way that can be easily reversed or undone. It seems to be leading to an end that frightens me a great deal,” he says.
I thought, then, about non-magical disappearances. We are often unable to conceptualize the true magnitude of certain inevitable losses. Even when regularly confronted with the most concrete and urgent sort of reality—that we have less than a year and a half before the planet’s climate is irreversibly headed toward catastrophe, for example—we tend, like the people in Ogawa’s novel, to forget. “End . . . conclusion . . . limit—how many times had I tried to imagine where I was headed, using words like these?” the narrator wonders. “But I’d never managed to get very far. It was impossible to consider the problem for very long, before my senses froze and I felt myself suffocating.” She finds herself, in conversation, “feeling that I was leaving out the most important thing—whatever that was.”
The fantastical is necessary to access the fullness of reality. Plato’s Cave helps us to understand human ignorance. Gregor Samsa waking up as a cockroach shows us what alienation can be. In 1981, the literary critic Bainard Cowan wrote, “Allegory could not exist if truth were accessible: as a mode of expression it arises in perpetual response to the human condition of being exiled from the truth that it would embrace.” When it comes to the situation of refugees, and to the conditions in which the Underground Railroad operated, and to the kind of repression that is imaginatively depicted in “The Memory Police,” we have, perhaps, exiled ourselves from the truth. These are not cognitively estranging phenomena in the manner of cyberspace, for instance, the technical workings of which most of us simply don’t understand. Statelessness and slavery and fascism may be complex, but, if we fail to fully see them, this is at least partly because we have chosen to look away.
These three novels that struck me so intensely—all of them science fiction, under Chu’s wide definition—had the ability to imbue these concrete realities with a weight and a radiance that held them out of the rush of time. “An appreciation of the transience of things, and the concern to rescue them for eternity, is one of the strongest impulses in allegory,” the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote. They’ve lingered in my mind in part because I often feel dulled by an endless accumulation of information, an onslaught of reality that precludes reality’s absorption. It can feel impossible to grasp the extent of the sufferings of others; we can consequently go blind to the ways in which individuals have mitigated and can mitigate this pain. Whitehead and Hamid and Ogawa make us look.
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Quiet, surreal drama — and disappearing objects — in 'the memory police'.
The Memory Police
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On a small island, objects disappear — perfume, boats, roses, photographs — and the memory police monitor the inhabitants, ensuring these things will be eternally forgotten. It seems like a metaphor for state surveillance; if The Memory Police were an American novel, it might yield a contrarian hero determined to fight off the tyranny of the police. It would be something akin to The Handmaid's Tale, or the movie version of Minority Report . One can even envision a high-paid Hollywood actor starring in the Netflix adaptation: They're coming for your memories, but she's got a plan to stop them!
But this is a Japanese novel — so for anyone looking for thrills, I'd like to warn you that despite the tagline "Orwellian" on the back cover of the book, this reads much more like a surrealist drama. A very quiet drama, at that.
The protagonist of this tale, translated by Stephen Snyder, is a young writer who endures — and endures seems to be too hard a term, she hardly seems to mind — an increasingly stifling world where goods are scarce, the police arrest citizens in the middle of the night and memories are torn from people's minds. She watches everything with a certain detachment which is not cynical indifference, but merely a deep-rooted passivity.
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At one point the narrator decides to build a secret room in her house to hide her editor, who is in danger of being caught by the police — but even this action, which in another novel might be deemed heroic, here is also laced with that delicate passivity. The overall feeling is like staring at falling snow over long stretches of time, which, frankly, will make those people with more literary proclivities quite happy, and those who want commercial science fiction quite frustrated.
If anything, the book clearly shows the contrast between two different types of writing. We are used to the American style of science fiction, while Ogawa is playing with another deck. Her intent is to analyze not only memory but the creative process — we read parts of a novel in progress which the protagonist is tackling — using very precise language. At times the result is something hauntingly sad, and at others it felt like my feet were being glued to the ground.
In terms of the dreaded C word which is muttered around blogs and hammered into aspiring writers — yes, Character Development: This novel also buckles that notion. The protagonist doesn't develop as much as she marinates. In a way, this paralysis of the soul somewhat reminded me of Tanith Lee, who produced more than one frustratingly apathetic heroine.
There's also a timelessness to the novel which didn't strike me until the end. Originally published in 1994, the difference between the then and now is non-existent because everything seems to occur in a dreamland where the lack of computers, cellphones or cable TV is irrelevant. Thus, it's never dated, which is quite a thing for a work of quasi-science fiction.
If you view The Memory Police as one big, fat metaphor for state control — and I'm sure many people will see it as that — you'll probably find more pleasure in it than if you attempt to consider it in other terms. It's an odd book, not entirely satisfying, but at the same time I have an interest in all things odd. Maybe you do too, in which case it might be, ah, pun intended, memorable.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is an award-winning author and editor. Her most recent novel is The Beautiful Ones . She tweets at @silviamg .
Somewhere Out There in a Place No One Knows: Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and the Literature of Forgetting
Article Summary by John Henning
This essay reads Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, The Memory Police , as a subtle allegory for the progression dementia and other neurological disorders. In Ogawa’s book, inhabitants of an unnamed island suffer a series of ‘disappearances’. At the same time on random days, they forget about things like birds, hats, roses, sucking sweets, and music boxes—eventually losing control over various parts of their bodies. In this world, a collective called the Memory Police remove all traces of ‘disappeared objects’ and ruthlessly dispose of islanders whose forgetting doesn’t follow the correct sequence. Since the release of its first English translation in 2019, the text has attracted a handful of interpretations from literary scholars. Most of these focus on the novel’s allegorical potential in relation to issues of totalitarianism and collectively enforced memory loss—as evocative, for example, of the Orwellian dystopia, or the state silencing of radiation victims in Japan. While my essay does not aim to ‘disagree’ with these readings, it does suggest that they should not be considered exhaustive. To do this, I consider The Memory Police alongside a collection of texts from what might be called a ‘literature of forgetting’—Thomas DeBaggio’s Losing my Mind:An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer’s , David Shenk’s The Forgetting , Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches Us about Love , and others—in an attempt to draw out some of their eerie resonances with Ogawa’s island.
Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website .
John Henning is reading towards a Master of Arts in English Literary Studies at the University of Cape Town. His research is focused on micro-spatial constructions (or ‘small places’) in the literature of South Africa’s interregnum. His essays on the works of Sol Plaatje, Arthur Miller, and Sisonke Msimang have appeared in various South African and international publications.
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The Memory Police Yoko Ogawa
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The Memory Police Essays
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and the Dangers of Forgetting
The unnamed island of Yoko Ogawa’s novel, The Memory Police (originally published in Japanese in 1994 and translated into English by Stephen Snyder in 2019), is a hazy, unsettling place where things inexplicably disappear. The disappearances range from mundane objects, such as hats or perfume, to wildlife like roses and birds. The island’s residents always have a sense of when something is about to go, even if they never know what it will be. Whenever something disappears, the residents lose all affective ties, memories, and even understanding of whatever the object was. The disappearances have become such an integral, accepted part of life that each subsequent disappearance garners little response. Most residents accept the disappearance, discard the object if possible, then continue with their lives. If they are caught with disappeared objects or indicate that they retain memories, they are taken away by the Memory Police.
The unnamed narrator’s mother can remember every forgotten object and hides many of these objects in a chest of drawers hidden in their basement. When the narrator is a young girl, her mother shows her some of these objects, explaining memories attached to each one. But the narrator, who falls prey to the full brunt of the disappearances, feels only emptiness and confusion when she encounters these objects that should no longer exist. Eventually, the narrator’s mother is taken away by the Memory Police, too. The novel charts the narrator’s struggle against the disappearances and her desire to protect her editor, who can retain his memories like her mother, from the Memory Police as the island continues to fall into disarray.
One of the most striking images of the novel is the titular Memory Police. Most reviews of Ogawa’s novel focus on the fascistic function of the organization, remarking on the timeliness of the novel’s translation given the increase in global fascism over the last several years. It is impossible to ignore the echoes of Nazi Germany and the treatment of Jewish people that Ogawa draws on, especially regarding the Memory Police themselves and the loaded imagery of the cramped, hidden enclave that the narrator builds within her home to hide her editor. And those echoes are intentional. From childhood, Ogawa expressed a keen interest in The Diary of Anne Frank , even devoting two of her own books to Frank’s life—a book of essays, Recollections of Anne Frank (アンネ・フランクの記, Furanku no kioku ) in 1995 and a book for young readers, Visiting Anne Frank (アンネ・フランクをたずねて , Anne Furanku o tazunete ) in 2011. Ogawa visited the hidden annex in Amsterdam as part of her research, touching the things that once belonged to Frank herself, getting a sense of how bodies fit within such tight quarters.
But the heavy emphasis on the Memory Police themselves obscures the larger argument that Ogawa makes about the nature of storytelling and, in particular, about historical revisionism. Rather than situating the Memory Police as the true antagonists in the story, the novel instead points to the power of invisible historical processes and how human beings participate in these processes. The Japanese title of the novel is 密やかな結晶 ( Hisoyaka na Kesshō ), which roughly translates to secret or quiet crystallization. Unlike the English title, the original Japanese title does not focus on a specific group of bad actors but on a surreptitious, societal process underpinning the entire novel.
Emphasizing a set of individuals or an organization creates an out, someplace we can point to when we ask why injustice happens. How many times has police brutality been brushed aside as the actions of “a few bad apples?” How often do organizations fixate on specific instances of racial discrimination as a way to avoid talking about the huge systemic overhaul necessary to address historical inequality? How many diversity panels have been created to signal social engagement while maintaining the status quo?
The Memory Police are an easy target within the novel’s world; they do horrible things and act in frightening ways. But they do not seem to control the things that disappear. As the novel progresses, it seems they simply flow with the disappearances, using the situation to their political advantage. They reinforce the disappearances, ransacking houses and taking people away if they show signs of memory, but they are not an all-powerful entity. They are a striking red herring that catches our eye as the underlying process of crystallization continues unabated.
The fiftieth anniversary of World War II was fast approaching when the novel was initially published in 1995, which meant that The Memory Police hit the scene amid renewed conversations around Japan’s role in the war, especially when it came to atrocities committed by the Japanese empire and the nature of memory production. Japan has long struggled with acknowledging historical atrocities and its colonization of the Asian mainland and other countries in the Pacific. One of the most common refrains Japan has used as a nation to sidestep responsibility is to blame all wartime acts on the government and the military at the time. The general populace is thus painted as unwilling participants or as individuals duped into the wartime project. It is easy to brush off responsibility when it was those people back then who were “the problem.”
For decades after the war, there was outright denial from many quarters that certain historical events even occurred—such as the massacre of at least 40,000 Chinese civilians and the rape or mutilation of countless Chinese women, commonly known as the Rape of Nanking, in 1937. As Reiko Tachibana notes in her book Narrative as Counter Memory , “Japanese discrimination against other Asian peoples, especially Koreans, again rose to the surface [in the 1990s], and the government continued to censor textbooks that acknowledged Japan’s crimes in Asia.” Even today, there is heated nationalistic grandstanding from some quarters about the historical legitimacy of “comfort women,” young women and girls from colonized countries who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army, the majority of whom were from Korea and China. The discussions regarding official state apologies and reparations for these and other atrocities have reappeared as recently as January 2021. There are so many intentional gaps in Japanese history regarding WWII that many Japanese citizens aren’t even aware of these events. Or these historical facts are painted as propaganda pushed by enemies of the Japanese state and shouldn’t be believed.
It’s within this historical milieu that Ogawa’s novel takes on its most piercing critique. How is it possible to forget so much so quickly, and how does the loss of memory impact the way we act in the present? The disappearances are regrettable, like the loss of harmonicas or the loss of several different types of food, but they generally seem harmless at first. For most of the disappearances, the objects appear self-contained—most of us could survive if we completely forgot what a harmonica was or if we could no longer eat a celery stalk. It’s easy in this sense to understand how the disappearance of minor objects would be accepted over time as no big deal. But with the smaller disappearances come increasingly troubling ones, objects that are a little more complex and abstract: photographs, maps, and books. Eventually, body parts begin to disappear. It becomes evident that these disappearances, while inconsequential when we consider them on a case-by-case basis, add up to devastating results. Once we learn how to forget, even the most seemingly unimportant things, the very act of forgetting becomes easier. At one moment, the narrator asks her editor, simply called ‘R’, whether he believes the hearts of those who forget are “decaying.” He replies,
“I don’t know whether that’s the right word, but I do know that you’re changing, and not in a way that can be easily reversed or undone. It seems to be leading to an end that frightens me a great deal.”
The uncritical acceptance of smaller disappearances produces a clear line to larger, more devastating disappearances. In the stories the narrator recounts from her mother or the accounts given by elders on the island, the disappearances have happened for some time, giving the islanders plenty of time to acclimate to them and naturalize the process. Even these early disappearances are recalled so matter-of-factly that it seems little was done to investigate the unknown process behind these disappearances. Or perhaps at some point, something was being done, but all memory of that has disappeared, too. Perhaps at some point, the very concept of resistance vanished from memory. With no other recourse, most islanders simply continue to accept each disappearance—even as they increase in number and significance.
To forget is to be disconnected from the past, to make it easier to miss the connections that link events or people together in the present. The complete loss of an object, like a map, goes beyond the loss of the map as a physical thing. What disappears with it is the knowledge of where you are in relation to others on the island, the ability to travel, the understanding that other islands exist beyond the narrator’s limited purview. Once a critical mass of information is lost, the linkages between them disappear, making it easier to believe that the world we live in now is how things have always been and that there is no need—and no possible way—to chart another path.
The novel provides some hope that the disappearances are not permanent and that the decaying of hearts can eventually stop. Although the islanders call them “disappearances,” the objects do not physically disappear. Instead, the islanders get rid of these objects themselves after their attachments to them are gone, either by destroying them or throwing them into the river. The disappearances are not a physical phenomenon but a mental and affective one. The Memory Police only exist because some on the island are not affected by the disappearances. Although the Memory Police have rounded up many of the people who do not forget, many, like R, remain safely hidden.
There are also some glimmers of hope for those who do forget. The narrator falls victim to the disappearances but tries to resist, mostly for the sake of R. For the most part, she finds it difficult to mentally grasp on to objects that have disappeared. But there are moments where hints of memory break through to her consciousness. She sees someone wearing something atop their head and, in a sudden jolt of memory, is able to remember what a hat is even though hats disappeared from the island several years ago. In another scene, she sees something fluttering through the air above her and remembers what a bird is. There are no strong emotions or clear memories attached to these recollections, but she can still pull these disappeared things out of the depths of her mind. They are not entirely forgotten, though perhaps buried deep within her psyche.
Once things are forgotten, it is difficult to get them back. Things ossify, crystallize until the world becomes something naturalized and accepted— things have always been this way . Then the cycle of forgetting begins to perpetuate itself. In a conversation with R, the narrator illuminates this vicious cycle,
“It’s disturbing to see things that have disappeared, like tossing something hard and thorny into a peaceful pond. It sets up ripples, stirs up a whirlpool below, throws up mud from the bottom. So we have no choice, really, but to burn them or bury them or send them floating down the river, anything to push them as far away as possible.”
Forgetting is twofold. On the one hand, the natural passage of time obscures the past from us the farther we are from it. But forgetting can also be a conscious decision. While we describe certain historical events or people as “forgotten,” it’s rare that such wholesale forgetting happens. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII has only relatively recently become a critical historical event taught in schools; for many white Americans, this was considered “forgotten” history. Yet, the Japanese American community never forgot. The Tulsa Massacre of 1921, where mobs of white citizens brutally attacked the Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District, is another significant historical incident that has been largely “forgotten” until recently. But the Black citizens who survived the attack, their descendants, and other Black Americans never forgot what happened. In both of these cases, the natural human process of forgetting was compounded by the intense desire of white Americans to forget these things ever happened, to never speak of them again. They were made to disappear until most American citizens truly did forget.
The disappearances on Ogawa’s fictional island may have started as a natural phenomenon, but at some point, it seems that the crystallization joined with human acceptance, gaining momentum as more and more people came to accept it. Ogawa pulls no punches with how the novel pans out; while there is some hope, the consequences of generations of forgetting are entirely, painfully realized. Even characters, like the narrator, who try their best to push back against the forgetting, fall prey. The warning of The Memory Police is thus not to beware of fascistic organizations that try to control the populace, but instead to beware of the invisible processes that are constantly occurring that allow such organizations to appear. By the time these entities appear, it is too late.
Julia Shiota is a writer and editor living in Minnesota. Her short fiction has appeared in Catapult and her other writing can be found in Poets & Writers, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.
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The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa review – profound allegory of loss
B irds, roses, maps and calendars are among the objects that have been “disappeared” from an unnamed island. Our narrator is a novelist who has lost both her parents. As the book opens, she has been working with her beloved editor, R, on a gentle love story between a typist and her teacher that takes a nightmarish turn. The novelist has one other trusted friend, an old man whom she has known since childhood.
In their lives, disappearances are continual. For instance: one night, the inhabitants of the island feel a stirring, a realisation that something is leaving. When morning arrives they find that red petals are inundating the river. “The breeze seemed to discriminate, choosing only the rose petals to scatter.” Without need of instruction, the islanders, “quiet, dazed”, dig up their rose bushes. They throw them into the river or incinerate them at communal fires. Some observe small ceremonies to mark the departure. Days later, the rose gardens will be gone and no one will remember what existed on that piece of land. The word “rose” will dissolve from memory; the Memory Police will do a thorough search for all images and writings about roses and remove them. “The first duty of the Memory Police [is] to enforce the disappearance.” The bird observatory is already in ruins, since the birds flew away never to return. Former hat-makers, ferrymen and boat mechanics have been displaced into other professions, as hats and ferries no longer exist.
First published in Japan in 1994 and one of more than 40 works of fiction and non-fiction by Yōko Ogawa, The Memory Police is finely translated by Stephen Snyder and reaches English-language readers as if sent from the future. Ogawa’s weightless and unadorned prose weaves a world where memory is always associative; we remember not just the object itself but what it conjures. Birds are byways to flight, lightness, quickness, youth, song, mornings, twilights, migrations. They partake in stories, paintings, metaphors and myths. Each object that is disappeared takes layers of personal and shared knowledge with it.
Some inhabitants retain their memories: R is one of these exceptions. It is a cruel fate; those suspected of remembering are harassed, detained and interrogated by the Memory Police. Yet in this world of anticipated disappearances – whose ultimate purpose inhabitants dare not guess – life goes on. “We shrug them off with as little fuss as possible and make do with what’s left. Just as we always have.” The daily struggle is not to remember but to find decent food and other necessities in a reality that is increasingly full of gaping holes.
The old man observes that, for most inhabitants, preserving something in memory will be “wasteful” because the mind is the space of greatest vulnerability, and has no natural armour. Therefore they must safeguard the calendars, maps and other objects themselves. Bereft of memories, words and associations, the inhabitants know that their hearts are growing “thinner”. The soul – personhood, selfhood – is hollowed out.
The novelist and the old man build a tiny secret room in which to hide R: “a cave floating in the sky”. They are running a terrible risk, but do not dwell on it; they hide the one who remembers since they themselves cannot. Slowly the tiny room accumulates what little can be salvaged. A harmonica, menthol sweets, a music box. For the old man and the novelist, despite their great longing, the objects elicit no response: they do not recognise them and cannot guess their use. The decay in their hearts appears irreversible. “Horrible things were about to happen,” the novelist reports, “but somehow we felt increasingly calm.” They are hiding R and saving his life, while in turn R is seeking to save them by protecting the memory of memory itself. R tries to prevent the novelist from burning photographs of her mother. “Important things remain important things,” he pleads, “no matter how much the world changes.”
There is an extraordinary moment when the novelist, living in a world from which birds have disappeared, has a sudden realisation that “the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air” looks like the wing of a bird. But the illumination is an almost unbearable sliver of grace; the books are burned and, soon after, neither “novel” nor “bird” has any meaning.
The action of the book ebbs and flows with the suddenness with which ordinary people take terrible risks. There are lessons here for those caught up in accelerating times, when political conditions deteriorate and life becomes a series of desperate calculations. Who to trust? When to speak? What to risk and when? How to love and exist, especially for those who know they will not outlive the obliteration?
The Memory Police doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis; we cannot say the state is Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Nazi Germany, or wrap the novel neatly around any specific historical amnesia. It cuts across many centuries and places, reminding us of every people forced to give up possessions, memories, names, languages and words before they themselves were destroyed.
Ogawa has a further challenge. Her novelist cannot recall the disappeared things, and this obstacle gives her language, already reserved, a faintness – an almost translucent feeling. How thin the writing sometimes seems, even as it remains sure and fluid. As losses accumulate and we internalise the workings of this world, the novelist’s understated prose accrues a polyphonic power.
It’s left to the reader to ask the questions. Who are the Memory Police, with their fine uniforms and empty faces? To whom do they report, and how did they come to hold such absolute power? How is it that all the fruit disappears, or that the snow never melts – that nature itself submits? Are we the Memory Police as well as the ones without memory?
While a reader may feel the need to interpret it solely as a political novel, the book also reads, accurately and passionately, as a profound meditation on dying. In its losses, we see the aching removal of a person from their world. In the twilight of life, memories weaken, friends disappear, objects are lost. The things that once brought pleasure no longer move us. Parts of our bodies succumb, by stroke or paralysis; we can no longer feel our left leg, our right hand. We slip away. What to do, how to refuse, how to mourn? Ogawa’s novel insists that we retain small illuminations; we are the key of a typewriter striking a note, leaving a trace – an R, say – before falling back into silence. The Police themselves, emotionless and orderly, may be no more and no less than the loss that eventually consumes each and every living thing.
The truths of The Memory Police work slowly, even off-handedly. When the novelist wonders why books burn so well, the old man says: “I suppose because they pack so much paper into such a small object.” When the story arrives at its fruition, its power seems to come out of the thin air and thin existence in which its characters are trapped. Yet the force of its ending is cumulative and phenomenal, and taps into the very source and meaning of memory.
The Memory Police is a masterpiece: a deep pool that can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination. It is a novel that makes us see differently, opening up its ideas in inconspicuous ways, knowing that all moments of understanding and grace are fleeting. It is political and human, it makes no promises. It is a rare work of patient and courageous vision.
- Fiction in translation
The Memory Police
48 pages • 1 hour read
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- Chapters 1-3
- Chapters 4-6
- Chapters 7-9
- Chapters 10-12
- Chapters 13-15
- Chapters 16-18
- Chapters 19-21
- Chapters 22-24
- Chapters 25-28
- Character Analysis
- Symbols & Motifs
- Essay Topics
“‘It’s a shame that the people who live here haven’t been able to hold such marvelous things in their hearts and minds, but that’s just the way it is on this island. Things go on disappearing, one by one.’”
This passage is the first explanation of the disappearances on the island. Before the main timeline in the novel, the child version of the narrator hears this from her mother, who has the ability to remember everything. The passage also establishes the heart motif as conveying the connection between lost memories and loss of emotional intelligence.
“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.”
Another scene from the narrator’s youth contains the first description of a disappearance that occurs in the novel—the disappearance of birds, which holds special significance because her father was an ornithologist. We learn that the disappeared thing can still exist on the island, but the concept—represented by the word—of the thing is taken away. The linguistic representation of the forgotten thing is connected with the islanders’ emotional and logical comprehension of it.
“‘The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So, they force it to disappear with their own hands.’”
Here, R is talking with the narrator about the “hand”-wielded power of the Memory Police: physical “force” as a method to enforce mental erasures. The police-state rulers are “men”; no women are ever seen in Memory Police uniforms, and this reinforces the idea of physicality as a method for subduing the citizens. The theme of island isolation also develops here.
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