The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and the end of the world

I finished this odd, sad, magical book just a day before the reality of Covid-19 struck, and when I went to return the book to the library, the library was closed for precaution. It is perhaps not the best book to read in such an interesting time when we are being asked to forget the very stuff we long took for granted – grocery store shelves, dining out, going to the gym, to work, touching our faces – and we live in a kind of situation that is different but similar to what happens in this Japanese magical realist near-fable. Suddenly, the memory police are here, and we have to forget. If we don’t, they will take us off to some hidden ward in some distant building, no one even knows where. It’s for our own good.

The one thing that is lacking from this book is the one thing we actually have: a reason. It is never clear or revealed why the Memory Police are doing what they do. Of course, it has been happening so long, no one can even remember why it started, and the ones who might have such a memory will be taken away and disappear, too. Is this how it starts? It’s for our own good, and we know it, and we must forget the things we took for granted.

But, at some point, whatever good the Memory Police did, it is swallowed up into the maw of lost time. No one knows. They have no power to do anything but accept the steadier and steadier losses of everything they knew, including, at some point, parts of their own bodies.

It is hard to explain to people what life under a cruel fascism must be like. From outside, it is hard to understand why people don’t rise up. Why do people join the autocratic state and commit such cruelties? Yoko Ogawa constructs a world where the powerful men who rule her island have the ability to erase the memory of things, leaving a sort of hole in the souls of people who lose birds, fruit, photographs, and many other things described by the state as “useless” or “rotten” and they are removed, as if plucked from the conscious mind. Citizens push on past the emptiness, trying hard to maintain a facade of a familiar life, and merely accept what they cannot stop. No one is happy, but they make do and keep a stiff upper lip, even as the disappearances of memories takes a heavy toll on the community. And, eventually, people who are immune or partially immune to these devastating disappearances are, themselves, rounded up to be forgotten. In this crisis, the unnamed main character – none of the characters are named, as if names had long been forgotten – is a novelist whose editor is at risk of being rounded up. He remembers. He remembers everything and encourages everyone he knows to hold on to those lost things, and to try and reawaken their souls. The novelist collaborates with an old man, a family friend since childhood and a paternal figure to a grown-up orphan, to hide the editor in a tiny, little, secret room in her big, old house. Much of the novel, when this comes, deals with the echo of the hidden on a life lived in constant, slow-moving fear. The world outside dissolves, and all that can be saved is hidden in a little room, beneath the floorboards, until nothing remains of what was before. This is interspersed with scenes from a novel, suggesting that the relationship between her and her editor is somehow predatory. They each seem to be using each other to survive, and ultimately she belongs to him materially, though I won’t reveal exactly how this happens.

It’s a strange book for strange times. If it isn’t too much to bear during our own catastrophes, I do recommend it. Four or five days ago, I quite liked it. I thought it was clever and strange and beautiful. Now, I feel the echo of the Memory Police in the emptying streets, and I’m not so sure how I feel about it. It’s a bit too close, I guess. But, it is a strange book, and lovely like the echo of an old song allowed to ring through the empty rooms where people used to live so innocently.


Categories: Book Reviews

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