OCTOBER 20, 2019
IN THE MEMORY POLICE, Yoko Ogawa delivers an enigmatic, uncanny, and richly rewarding novel. Written before most of her other work that Stephen Snyder has translated into English, it shows her digging into many of the same concerns as her later work: art, loss, beauty, love, memory, caretaking, and old age. There are tropes and moments present that one might reasonably label “Orwellian,” but at its center The Memory Police is a story about what it means to be a writer and the impermanence of art, all masquerading as a dystopian fable.
The unnamed narrator is a novelist and the daughter of a sculptress living on an unnamed island off the coast of a larger unnamed island. As the physical world slowly disappears around her (birds, ribbon, emeralds, candies, and more) so do the people who are able to remember the disappeared objects. The Memory Police apprehend anyone who shows signs of being able to remember (most people forget) along with anyone who keeps safe the apparently random objects that disappear. When the unnamed narrator learns that her editor is one of those whose memory is unaffected by the disappearances, she resolves to hide him in a small room between the first and second floors of her house.
The novel’s title may lead some to believe this is a contemporary response to the rise of right-wing extremism and authoritarianism (one early review in a trade magazine mistakenly implied Ogawa had written The Memory Police recently, instead of in the early 1990s). It’s clear this is how the publisher would like the novel to be viewed, as “Orwellian,” perhaps even hoping it falls into the somewhat dubious and defanged category of “resistance lit.” While we can safely presume Ogawa’s political leanings are anti-fascist, the marketing conceals what might otherwise be presented as a prismatic and multilayered work of literature, one that is insistent on avoiding easy answers to the questions it poses.
Central to the novel is the idea that art’s natural state is one of resistance or is somehow inherently anti-authoritarian. The narrator’s mother, for instance, hides disappeared objects in small, hollowed-out sculptures, while the narrator herself struggles to access her memories in an effort to finish the novel she’s writing. She, too, with the aid of a tiny room for her editor, hides things from the past for safekeeping, even when her memory fails to recall simple objects like a hat or a harmonica.
This is not a particularly new idea — governments all over the world make clear daily that they understand the threat artists pose. The more interesting idea here is that memory itself is a subversive act, and that memory is directly connected to our voices and our bodies. Throughout The Memory Police, there are sections of a novel that the unnamed narrator is working on herself. In her novel, another unnamed narrator is kidnapped and loses her voice, drawing parallels between the novelist and her subject. Other novels have similar conceits of a book within a book — Margaret Atwood’s excellent The Blind Assassin comes to mind here — but what sets this one apart is the way it addresses the form and creation of literature directly:
I soaked my feet in water.
It had taken me an entire night to write that one line. I tried reading it aloud a number of times, but I had no idea where the words had come from nor any guess as to where they might be leading. When I returned the objects to R the next day, I held out my manuscript along with them. He stared at it a long time, though it was no more than a single line.
“It’s just scribbling,” I told him. “Not something you need to read. I’m sorry. Just throw it away.” He had been quiet so long, I was sure he was disappointed.
Most writers will immediately recognize this self-doubt and the agony of composing a novel, to say nothing of the hours they might spend on a single line. To make matters worse, the progress, satisfaction, or longevity one might achieve through writing is almost always certain to be short-lived. It is the nature of art that most of it is forgotten and that which stays is only truly remembered and cared for by relatively few. What is ostensibly a novel about loss and the perils of draconian rule reveals itself to be equally about the anxiety and frustration of the artist. Near the end of the novel, in a wink to the reader, the narrator asks her editor,
“I wonder whether the story will remain after I disappear?”
“Of course it will. Each word you wrote will continue to exist as a memory, here in my heart, which will not disappear. You can be sure of that.”
“I’m glad. I’d like to leave behind some trace of my existence on the island.”
The story ends eventually, but the reader’s life goes on, and when the writer has done their job well, as Ogawa has here, it goes on with the added memory of that unnamed narrator. The narrator is, rightly, skeptical of her editor’s encouraging words but keeps on regardless — and indeed The Memory Police draws a comparison between writing under the tyranny of time and memory, and the struggle to simply exist under the tyranny of authoritarian governments. In both cases, the individual is likely to lose. Of course, it isn’t all hopeless. That the narrator’s mother is able to leave behind memories and disappeared objects stowed away in her sculptures, revealed only to the narrator after her mother dies, speaks to art’s capacity to reach us through time, an uncanny quality that is both haunting and enthralling.
Readers familiar with Ogawa will recognize the slow creep and tension inherent to “being found out.” In The Housekeeper and the Professor, the reader lives in a near-constant state of fear that the housekeeper will be punished for breaking the rules of her contract, something she does for her son and out of kindness toward the professor, whose long-term memory stops in 1975 and short-term only lasts 80 minutes. In terms of narrative, The Memory Police shares more in common with The Diary of Anne Frank than novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four or Brave New World. The police themselves are an ambient presence. They show up with little or no warning and opaque motives. The novel’s other villains are mostly absent but often polite when they do assert their power. When the narrator’s mother is taken away, the last time she’s seen alive, the narrator is “reassured by the opulence of the car and the careful manners of the driver. If she was to be so well taken care of, there was no need to worry.”
Antagonists can give protagonists a sense of direction, so with no one for the protagonists to come together and rail against the narrative risks feeling rudderless. But Ogawa’s novel is better for it: the struggle to maintain normalcy and continue to be kind and helpful to your friends and family in the face of subjugation and loss becomes central, leaving little room for vapid action. There is much more about the magic of the mundane here than there is action in any traditional sense. There are birthdays that need celebrating, food that needs cooking, dogs that need walks, and natural disasters that must be weathered. Nevertheless, the specter of the Memory Police, the disappearances themselves, and possible informants living in the neighborhood provide more than enough danger to give the novel shape.
Ogawa often presents memory as something malleable and dangerous, like molten glass, while also interrogating the many ways it shapes our identity. But in The Memory Police (as opposed to later work like The Housekeeper and the Professor), she ties memory to the body, makes the ethereal solid and vice versa, in what ends up being one of the novel’s most compelling attributes. Her delight in the material world is on full display here: having birds and roses disappear is more obviously sentimental, but the loss of simpler objects like stamps, perfume, and green beans strikes a chord similar to the strange sadness of real disappearances of payphones, cassette tapes, or gas station road maps. This celebration of the object shapes the novel into the type of truly transformative work that can rekindle the joy one finds in life’s smaller pleasures. Like Proust’s madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, the characters’ sensory perception of what’s lost and forgotten unlocks a history, flooding the work with nostalgia and melancholy but also sweeter and more playful sentiments as well.
For a novel that’s under 300 pages, The Memory Police is remarkably layered and rich without feeling cluttered, or as if loose ends aren’t tied up. Ogawa’s collections of three novellas (The Diving Pool) and linked stories that resemble a novel (Revenge) achieve a similar effect, a sort of echo feedback or decaying loop. Ogawa is acutely aware of the impact reverberation can have in literature. This is in part where The Memory Police derives its prescience. It was written almost 30 years ago but still taps into the anxieties and concerns of present-day readers. It’s hard to read and not to think of ICE raids terrorizing immigrants or the political doublespeak used daily to confuse and distract. But despite its billing, The Memory Police rarely offers what might be considered a political argument. What little there is in the way of a concrete ethic (for example, we should accept and aid those who have been othered by the state) is there firmly, but without drawing unnecessary attention to itself. Ogawa, thankfully, is never in the business of sermonizing or preaching.
It’s disappointing that the novel’s publication seemingly required an uptick in fascism and right-wing nationalism. The tint of opportunism notwithstanding, we’re fortunate to have more work by such a uniquely gifted and idiosyncratic writer who, despite a string of compelling translations and the moderate success stateside of The Housekeeper and the Professor, has yet to gain the wider readership she deserves in the English-speaking world. It’s all but certain that The Memory Police will change that.