On its surface “The Memory Police” feels like a typical dystopian novel about an oppressive military force. The narrator lives on an island where certain objects such as roses and music boxes totally disappear. Not only do these things vanish overnight but so do people’s memories of them. Anyone possessing or even recalling these things after they’ve been outlawed disappear themselves through the enforcement of an impersonal group known as the memory police. This leads people (such as the narrator’s mother who is taken away) to conceal objects which were supposed to disappear and people who remember outlawed things go into hiding. Events such as the systematic burning and destruction of outlawed objects have obvious parallels with historic fascist regimes. While it portrays this nightmarish world in a moving way, Yoko Ogawa’s novel isn’t as concerned with the mechanics of totalitarianism as it is with the philosophical mysteries of the human heart as well as the meaning and function of memory.
The narrator is a novelist and over the course of the book we also get snippets of a story she’s writing about a typist and her instructor. As the novel progresses the parallels between the narrator’s world and the typist’s world become surreally aligned as they seem to reflect her internal reality. While I found the sections of the narrator’s novel-in-progress somewhat intrusive at first they take on an increasing power as her reality grows increasingly bleak and restricted. The interplay between these stories is given a further complexity in how the narrator’s editor (only referred to as R) goes into hiding and tries to coax the narrator into remembering what’s been lost in the disappearances. It’s so interesting how this shows the complex process of memorialisation and prompts the reader to question things like: what’s vital to remember and what’s better to forget? How much do we imaginatively insert false memories into the truth of what occurred in the past? To what degree is our memorialization of certain things or people about our own ego rather than honouring what’s been lost?
From reading Ogawa’s previous novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” it’s clear these complex issues about memory are ones which doggedly preoccupy the author. I admire how she explores them in surprisingly subtle ways and from different angles in her brilliantly unique novels. She also has an interesting way of approaching the parallel issue of romance – both romance between people and our romantic relationship with our own pasts. In “The Memory Police” there’s a lot of discussion about the heart and how “A heart has no shape, no limits. That’s why you can put almost any kind of thing in it, why it can hold so much. It’s much like your memory, in that sense.” When things disappear it’s described as leaving holes in the hearts of people who can’t remember them and, because their absence forms these “new cavities”, it drives people to destroy any remaining physical trace of the thing. It’s like destroying sentimental letters, photographs or mementos when a relationship ends or a person dies – as if that can cancel out our feelings of bereavement.
In contrast to the resistant attitude of the editor R, the narrator also has a long-time friend and supporter in a figure only referred to as the “old man”. Although he assists the narrator in hiding the editor and rescuing disappeared goods, he has a more apathetic attitude about the worrying frequency with which things vanish. He states: “The disappearances are beyond our control. They have nothing to do with us. We’re all going to die anyway, someday, so what’s the differences? We simply have to leave things to fate.” Paired with the disappearances of memories is an inertia and lack of resistance from most of the general population who simply comply. This echoes many examples from history where people are unwilling to defend their values, way of life and the lives of others when threatened by a perceived authority. I’m sympathetic to this dilemma and it’s a complex subject. I admire the way this excellent novel wrestles with these issues that we all face both as individuals and citizens of our communities.