The Lit Club: The Memory Police (Jan 2022)

[Image description: Cover of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. A grainy picture of a woman with parts draw over. 

Rating: 5/5

Yoko Ogawa’s novel is a dreamlike story of dystopia, set on an untamed island, where for the past 15 years, things have regularly disappeared, not just physically but also from the memory of its inhabitants. These disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, the absolute authority. Our narrator, like many people around her, is unnamed and is used to forgetting things. Ever since her mother’s death, she spends much of her time letting go of objects surrounding her one by one: “One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realised … you’ll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you’ll know you have lost something, that something has disappeared from the island.” The islanders themselves simply accept these disappearances, quickly forgetting not just the thing but also the feeling that it gave them.

There are a few exceptions, however: people whose memories persist are harassed and taken away by the Memory Police never to be seen again. When our unnamed narrator learns that her editor, whom we only know as R, is one of those who still remember, she resolves to hide him in a small room of her house. In return for his safety, R tries to restore the memories of the narrator and her friend, by showing them the objects that have already been “disappeared” - an emerald, a ferry ticket, a bottle of perfume - and sharing his own memories of them. But even such a connection can not seem to summon anything more than an occasional melancholy feeling.

Parallel to the main narrative is the narrator’s own novel in progress, which begins as a romance between a female typing student and her teacher, but progresses as another vanishing story. This time the voice itself is lost. While we may feel the pull to interpret it as a political novel, Memory Police also reads as a profound meditation on loss and death. In the disappearances, we see the painful removal of a person from their world. Their memories weaken, friends disappear, objects are lost. Nothing we can do to stop the passing of time, so the questions remain: how can we mourn? Yoko Ogawa shows us that even in loss we retain small victories, like a flash of a happy memory. 

I’ve decided to send this book to Risen exchange specifically because we all are quite ingrained in the political life of our world. We read the news, we suffer the injustices, and we try to help. And sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough. When I read The Memory Police I was reminded about small victories that are harder to cheer for in our world, but they still matter. Helping even one person changes our world for the better. There are always slivers of hope, even in the darkest room of our houses. And sometimes that is enough.

Review by Kseniia.