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The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

What an extraordinary book. I was charmed by the clarity and simplicity of the images that it created, as well as fascinated by how well it portrayed the sinister overtones of state control and manipulation.

The Memory Police is about life on an island where the opaque organization of the title are responsible for forcibly removing certain items, and their memories, from the whole population. It is the ultimate totalitarian state, people are manipulated by the control of their memories. Once items disappear, people cease to recall them and quickly completely forget them. At first these things are birds or roses, but later the disappearances become more sinister.

At the centre of the book are three characters – none of them named. The narrator is a young woman who has lost both her parents to the Memory Police, there is an old man who did odd jobs for those parents, and a man called R who is the editor of the books that the young woman writes. R turns out to be someone who retains his memories of the things that are ‘disappeared’. Because of this, the young woman risks her life to hide R in her house, creating a small hidden room into which she brings his food and which the old man plumbs with toilet and ventilation. The three set about evading the Memory Police, clinging to the things that R remembers.

One of the joys of the book are the little pieces of profound wisdom that come along with the disappearances, and especially as R fights to preserve what is being lost. For example, when photographs are banned, he says; “They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and winds and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

As soon as something is selected to be ‘disappeared’ it takes on a new quality, rather like a picture which is already fading from view. The people do not fight for it, to retain it or keep it, but seem to happily relinquish hold. At one point novels are banned, and R wants to keep as many as he can. The young woman is told to select some to keep: ‘It was difficult to decide which books to keep and which to part with. Even as I picked up each volume, I realized I could no longer remember what it had been about. But I knew I couldn’t linger over these decisions, since it was quite possible the Memory Police would be around to check on my progress. In the end I decided to keep the books that had been given to me by dear friends and those with beautiful covers.’

Since the narrator is a novelist, she has to retrain for another job, and becomes a typist in a spice factory.

The book has fable like qualities. To some extent we are asked to suspend belief about what is happening – in the same way that we believe that the princess can sleep for a hundred years and not die of malnutrition after a few weeks or die in her sleep at the age of 85 when she is stooped and wrinkled. Our need to accept the increasing lack of realism increases more and more. Roses can be removed – their roots are dug from the ground. But limbs cannot disappear while they are still joined to the body. They are still there, you can see them, touch them, stub your toe and feel pain. What I increasingly feel is that the population is being brainwashed – they are told that their limbs are gone and they believe that, rather than the evidence of their own eyes or sensations in their fingertips.

Before novels disappeared, the narrator was writing a book, some of which is inserted into the story and provides a strange contrast. A teacher of typing imprisons a young woman in a tower room, where he delivers food and bizarre clothes for her to wear. She ceases to speak – he is gradually removing her powers of speech and her will to escape. Contrast the main story where the young woman has, in effect, got R imprisoned in a room, but he is there for protection and nurture, and the woman makes his meals and finds jobs for him to undertake. While R can see nothing, the woman in the novel can look out from a tower window, but her vision begins to fade, while R sees more and more in his memories. Wonderful contradictions.

Eventually the narrator is unable to write more, it is like she has lost all her skill and enthusiasm for the task. It is the beginning of a spiraling end.

Such a wonderfully simple story, but with a fathomless depth into which it is possible to fall and fall. The book was first published in Japan in 1994, in that pre-mass-internet age when perhaps things were simpler. Issued now in its first English translation, this is a gem.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Harvill Secker, RRP $44, Hardback


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