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Review of The Memory Police

This is the front cover art for the book 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na kesshō) written by Yōko Ogawa

This is the front cover art for the book 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na kesshō) written by Yōko Ogawa

Total Recall

On an unnamed island, things disappear. Most people eventually can’t recall the things—birds, ferries, roses, photographs—that disappear, and the Memory Police come around to remove or destroy all vestiges of whatever vanishes, and that way people can never be troubled by memories of it ever again. However, not everyone loses their memories. Those who can remember must hide, or risk capture by the Memory Police. A young novelist, whose mother was taken years ago by the titular organization, believes the increasingly draconian measures to ensure these disappearances are wrong. After encountering a family on the run, she decides to help her friend and editor who confesses he has never forgotten anything that’s disappeared. With the help of an Old Man whose always been a friend of her family, she creates a safe room to hide her friend, sheltering him and his memories from the Memory Police. As the disappearance increase in frequency and the narrator loses more of herself, she struggles to keep her own spirit from crumbling in the face of eroding memories and a relentless, destructive bureaucracy.

A refreshing element of this novel is how the protagonist isn’t really a plucky, competent rebel or a “chosen one,” or anything like other contemporary dystopian hero tropes. She doesn’t know how to stop the disappearances and isn’t criticizing her society even though it’s caused her significant pain. She is a woman who wants to help her friend and goes to extraordinary lengths to do so. While she’s a decent writer, she has no special talents and isn’t even immune to the disappearances. To many readers, she’ll seem courageous because she’s an ordinary person taking on so daunting a task, akin to people that hid Jews and other persecuted peoples from the Nazis during World War Two. It is easy to sympathize with her because she’s trying to do right, and the danger she is in comes across as so harrowing because of her vulnerability.

An element that is both interesting and frustrating is the central conflict. The disappearances are a natural occurrence on the island, and most people seem willing or accepting of this condition. Even the Old Man that helps the protagonist seems eminently adaptable to the objects and memories that vanish, enduring in relative ease while even important things disappear from his life (54). These disappearances, then, may symbolize entropy, which is not evil but a condition endemic to the whole universe. The Memory Police are frequently antagonistic, and it’s difficult to forgive their destructiveness. Part of the problem is that they’re bad by default; one character explains, “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” (25). While they are a Kafkaesque, nightmare organization, they are not as pervasive as one might think, and they might not seem as terrifying to some readers because they’re essentially playing second fiddle to another impersonal, devastating force. They sometimes seem to lack the menace of similar dystopian organizations like the firemen of Fahrenheit 451.

Cover of the English translation of "The Memory Police"

Cover of the English translation of "The Memory Police"

The Play’s the Thing...

There is a novel within the novel that the protagonist is writing, and it concerns a young woman taking typing classes only to be taken captive and held in a clock tower by someone she trusts. There are deep and fantastic parallels between this story and what is happening in the novel, which provides some insight into the ambivalence the narrator has about what she is doing. On the one hand, she believes she’s saving her friend and his memories, but on the other, she’s afraid she’s holding him in isolated captivity. Given the nature of this technique, some readers might think there will be a lot of meta alterations in the main narrative as the narrator forgets about things that disappear. For instance, once birds disappear, the narrator uses the phrase “killing to creatures with one stone,” altering the idiom to reflect the change in reality and her memory, but the technique doesn’t appear with much frequency otherwise (93).

For readers looking for a strong central plot, it won’t be found. The focus of the novel is more personal, concentrating on a few people who act in increasingly desperate circumstances to preserve something they believe to be valuable. It also means there is no grand discovery about why any of these events happen. This isn’t necessarily a flaw of the story, but it’s worth mentioning so readers will have the correct expectations going into the novel.

Don’t Forget, which is to Say: Remember

Readers looking for a meditative dystopian novel that focuses on remembrance and loss will definitely want to get The Memory Police, especially if they’re fans of The Twilight Zone, 1984, or China Dream.

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Ogawa, Yoko. The Memory Police. Translated by Stephen Snyder, Pantheon Books, 2019.

© 2020 Seth Tomko

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