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The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

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“But our memories were diminishing day by day, for when something disappeared from the island, all memory of it vanished, too.”

The Memory Police reminded me of a book I recently read, called Amatka. Given that the former was first published in 1994 and the latter is a fairly recent release I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Karin Tidbeck had read Yōko Ogawa’s novel. Similarities to Amatka aside, I still felt an odd sense of familiarity while I was being first introduced to the weird world of The Memory Police. Perhaps this recognition is due to having read another book by Ogawa called The Housekeeper and the Professor. On the surface these two books do not share much in common given that The Memory Police has been classified as a work of speculative-fiction while The Housekeeper and the Professor could be easily described as a heartwarming slice of life. And yet—in no small part thanks to Stephen Snyder, the translator—these works were obviously written by the same person. They both focus on ordinary moments—such a meal times, stroll around the neighbourhood, the sensation of a particular object in one’s hands—paying specific attention to the seemingly mundane feelings and thoughts that can cross our minds during our every-day lives. And of course, both books provide in-depth examinations of the role and significance of ‘memory’ . The two narratives approach this exploration of this faculty in very differentiating manner and with widely different results.

Ogawa, similarly to Kafka and Beckett before her, doesn’t really provide a reason for the way the world in The Memory Police is the way it is. Readers, alongside the narrator, are to accept that the inhabitants of this mysterious island ‘forget’ things and beings. Once they collectively forget something, that something looses its significance and, as they no longer have a memory of it, the people can no longer recall what it is, or whether it had a particular significance to them. They cannot name it or struggle to reconcile themselves with it. They are unable to prevent this process, their passive acceptance of their circumstance is weighed by a sense of inevitability. The protagonist of this novel is also unable, and unwilling, to counteract this processes of forgetting as to question the ‘system’ would undoubtedly attract the scrutiny of the memory police, individuals tasked with ensuring that the islanders obey the rules.

Unlike many other dystopias out there, the narrative is not concerned with creating a tale of change, rebellion or of a future hope. Rather, the story is very much an analysis of how difficult it is to understand or trace the repercussions of forgetting something as vital as a photo. As the narrative progresses our protagonist, alongside the majority of the islanders, forgets most of the things and beings that had until then had a meaning and role in their lives. The protagonist’s relationship with everything and everyone is frail as there is always the threat that she might forget someone or something dear to her next.
The story left me with the impression that the more these characters forgot and the less humane they seem to become.

The narrative of this book is deceptively sedate. The majority of the characters are conditioned to this frankly frightful scenario, and because of this we often see them as they speak of everyday-things or just trying to get by.
The storyline posses this unhurried and indefinite quality that suits the increasingly grey and meaningless world the novel’s protagonist lives in.

In a certain way it is the very fact that the book focuses on a steadily aimless world that limited the range of its tone and subject matter. Although it’s understandable that the protagonist is so resigned to forgetting this also created distance between the reader and her character.
Other characters are often addressed by nicknames—such as ‘old man’ and ‘R’—furthering this feeling of distance between us and the story. While this is intentional, and it does convey the slow corrosion of individuality and personality occurring with each new disappearance, it also forces readers into a role of impassive observants, watching silently as the characters are stripped of their human qualities.
Nevertheless, I do think that this book deserves plenty of praise and I’m looking forward to read more by Ogawa.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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