Policing Memory – Book Review

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a dystopian novel set on an unnamed island where the Memory Police disappear things from time to time. The protagonist is a novelist (also unnamed) who lives alone in a house by the river. Both her parents are dead and from as long as she can remember things have been disappeared from the island. The other characters are an old man and R the editor of the protagonist’s novels. The people on the island forget what has been disappeared though not all of them do. They are the ones in danger of being arrested and taken away by the Memory Police. The protagonist’s mother was one such person. She was a sculptor and she remembered all the things that were disappeared. She is arrested and murdered by the Memory Police. So when the novelist finds out that R too remembers things that have been disappeared, she decides to help him.  

Parallel to the events in the story are the events that happen in the novel the protagonist is writing; like a story within a story. This other story has a typist who loses her voice as it is captured by her typewriter. She finds herself voiceless when her typewriter breaks down one day.  

As the novel progresses the atmosphere grows increasingly claustrophobic. As more and more things are disappeared by the Memory Police, the life space goes on decreasing as the memories associated with the disappeared things also fade. To add to this feeling of suffocation permanent winter sets in when calendars are disappeared. The extreme weather forces people to stay indoors and outdoor activities are at a minimum and this adds to the feeling of being imprisoned.

One of the most poignant scenes in the novel describes the day roses were disappeared.

“I leaned over the windowsill, blinking again and again. The surface of the river was covered with tiny fragments of … of something … in an indescribable array of hues – reds, pinks and whites – so thick that not a space was visible between them … None of the petals were withered or brown. On the contrary, perhaps because the water was so cold, they seemed fresher and fuller than ever, and their fragrance, mixed with the morning mist from the river, was overpoweringly strong…. Petals covered the surface as far as the eye could see. My hands had cleared a patch of water for a brief moment, but petals soon came flooding in again to fill it, and then they flowed on, almost as if someone had hypnotized each of them and was drawing them toward the sea.”

Here is a surreal scene. On the day novels are disappeared the protagonist, along with her friend – the old man – wander the city streets with their books to find fires in which to destroy them.

“We walked aimlessly, and the cart was easier to pull now that our load was lighter. We turned north, along the steet were the streetcar ran, cut througj the parking lot at city hall, and made our way along a street lined with houses. From time to time we came upon a vacant lot where a small fire was burning.

“Would you mind if we joined you?” the old man asked the people standing around, and we would stop to warm our hands and burn an armful of books. We might have burned the rest of the cartload at any of these fires, but we worried about the danger of the fires spreading, so we repeated the process: burning some books, pulling the cart farther along, finding another fire. The night was deepening but fires continued to burn. I would have thought the number of novels on the island was relatively small, but pillars of smoke rose in many places with no sign of stopping.”

Here is an eerily familiar scene, one that all of us must have encountered at some point of time or the other. The protagonist visits the headquarters of the Memory Police and is asked to fill out a form.

“The paper, gray and shiny, contained boxes with endless categories: name, address and occupation, of course, but also academic history, medical history, religious affiliation, employment experience, height, weight, shoe size, hair colour, blood type and on and on.”    

What is most disturbing about The Memory Police is the fact that people on the island are not disturbed when things are disappeared. They don’t think of resisting the disappearances. They accept them and soon get used to the absences. Perhaps they cannot help it since their memories of the disappeared objects also fade along with the object itself. They even think of it as a burden to remember and burn the things that have been disappeared in their garden, or throw them in the river. They seem as eager as the Memory Police to forget the things that have been disappeared. They want to get on with the business of living. They keep on adjusting their lives around the disappearances and, when the Memory Police start disappearing body parts they learn to live with that too; or rather without.

An eerie calm pervades the whole novel and the language is gentle, unadorned and curiously detached. Even as the protagonist describes what happens to her and others she retains a sense of calm aloofness from it all. This too is responsible for making the novel as magical and surreal as it is.  

In our own lives the world over the state has become increasingly intrusive and invades private spaces hiding behind a pandemic, wearing the mask of pious concern for its citizens and washing its hands off from the responsibility of the human tragedy that unveils. We too are busy getting on with the business of living. We too choose to forget. We forget to question, and arrange our lives around the new normal. In the permanent winter of blind faith and unquestioning allegiance, whether to an idea, a way of life, or to a person, we get used to the cramped mental spaces we are forced to live in, as one freedom after another is disappeared by the state. We are living the dystopia that is delineated in the book.  

Title: The Memory Police

Author: Yoko Ogawa

Translator: Stephen Snyder

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Penguin Random House)

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