The Volatilty of Memory

If there is one thing that can be said about Japanese literature is that it is kaleidoscopic in scope. It covers a vast landscape and the diversity that thrives within its ambit makes it one of the most interesting parts of the world of literature. Under its umbrella are subgenres that make Japanese literature all the more interesting. Japanese writers have introduced their own brand of fiction. While magical realism, mainly driven by Haruki Murakami, has been the most prevalent in the contemporary, Japanese literature covers a plethora of genres, ranging from historical to slice-of-life to crime to mystery fiction. Another important genre of Japanese literature is science fiction, a genre that has been more popular in manga and anime. The advent of video games has also shaped this genre.

In the published form, several writers have also made waves with their visionary works. One of the more recent works that have made a global impact was Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Originally published in Japanese as 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na Kesshō) in 1994, it was finally made available to anglophone readers in 2019, with translation by Stephen Snyder. The novel charts the story of an unnamed novelist who was living on an unnamed island under the control of an oppressive regime. Keeping watch of the island’s denizens is the Memory Police. The book’s main protagonist and primary narrator, the anonymous novelist has lost both her parents. With her editor, R, she has been working on a love story between a typist and her teacher.

The unnamed island the novelist was residing in was no ordinary island. One of the realities in the life of the island’s inhabitants is an unusual phenomenon that causes them to experience an enigmatic form of gradual amnesia. Upon waking up, random items, words, and even concepts start fading from their memory, one at a time. These objects can range from the mundane to the complex. It can be a flower, a hat, a ribbon, or an emerald. One of the roles of the Memory Police is to enforce the removal of the disappeared objects from the island. There seemed to be no permanence on the island. All of these took place under the noses of the island’s inhabitants: “Everyone on the island had a vague premonition about what awaited them at the end, but no one said a word about it. They were not afraid, and they made no attempt to escape their fate. They understood the nature of the disappearances, and they knew the best way to deal with them.”

“I sometimes wonder what I’d see if I could hold your heart in my hands. I imagine it fitting perfectly in my palms, soft and slippery, like gelatin that hasn’t quite set. It might wobble at the slightest touch, but I sense I’d need to hold it carefully, so it wouldn’t slip through my fingers. I also imagine the warmth of the thing. It’s usually hidden deep inside, so it’s much warmer than the rest of me. I close my eyes and sink into that warmth, and when I do, the sensations of all the things that have disappeared come back to me. I can feel all the things you remember, there in my hands. Doesn’t that sound marvelous?”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Memory Police

Despite the disappearances that happened around them, they were none the wiser. They built their life around these unusual occurrences, picking up the pieces without missing a beat as if nothing ever happened. When hats started disappearing, the milliner switched trade to making umbrellas. Life has taught us that for every rule, there is an exception. There were some inhabitants who, for some unknown reasons, were able to retain their memory. Unfortunately, anyone who exhibited even the slightest signs of remembering was apprehended by the Memory Police. On the unnamed island being able to remember was not a blessing; it was a curse. In the middle of the night, they were taken away, to be harassed, detained, and interrogated. Some were never seen again. It wasn’t only objects that disappeared; people, too.

One of those who were able to remember was the protagonist’s mother. In the novel’s opening pages, the novelist’s mother gave her a caveat, that soon she will forget. Unbeknownst to the Memory Police, her mother has also been storing some of these objects thought to have disappeared in a cabinet in her basement. Those who were able to remember, given the opportunity, attempted to retreat from the island. Some went incognito. When the novelist learned that her editor, R, was able to remember disappeared objects, she enlisted the assistance of the only other friend she trusted, an old man who she knew when she was younger. The old man and the novelist, not dwelling on the risks they were taking, built a secret room in between the first and second floors of her house where R can remain hidden. On his part, R helped the novelist and the old man remember some of the objects stripped from their memory, but it was for naught.

With the images that come to the fore, the novel can easily be perceived as a political novel. The most palpable subjects the novel grappled with were the nature of totalitarian states and political extremism. The dystopia that Ogawa captured was vivid. The inhabitants of the island have unknowingly become subservient to the whims of the state, with the state finding means to keep them tightly reined. The inhabitants have become automatons, unwilling pawns to a grander scheme. There was a passive acceptance of their fate that hovered above the story. This, coupled with the claustrophobic impact of continued surveillance, evoked images of a popular literary masterpiece, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Nineteen Eighty-Four prominently featured Thought Police, a hallmark of books exploring dystopia and totalitarian regimes. Japan also had its own version of the Thought Police, the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (特別高等警察, Special Higher Police), or Tokko (特高, Tokkō) for short. Like the Thought Police of contemporary lore, the Tokko was tasked to carry out high policing, such as monitoring political groups and ideologies considered to be subversive. Any threats to the general peace of the Japanese empire were quickly policed by the Tokko. It was eventually abolished in October 1945 following the fall of Tokyo during the Second World War.

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seends that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A light tremor of pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Memory Police

Despite the indifference of the island’s inhabitants, resistance to the regime was stamped all over. The most prevalent form of resistance was art. Because of the multifacetedness of art, artists have long been viewed as anti-authoritarian. The novelist’s mother, for instance, was a sculptress. She kept her sculptures hidden from the Memory Police. The main protagonist was another representation of resistance. Several books, including novels, despite their progressive ideas, have been perceived as subversive. During the rise of the Nazis, the burning of books was one of its first demonstrations of seeing the narrative. Anyone caught in possession of banned books was punished.

History is riddled with how dictators have censored journalists and books and have controlled newspapers and media. This amplified the role that the main protagonist played in the preservation of knowledge. Running parallel to the main storyline are passages from the novel that the nameless novelist was working on, her fourth. Her work charted the story of a typist who was slowly losing her voice, a projection of its author’s own experiences. This story within a story was itself a metaphor for the events transpiring in the main storyline. The novelist’s works, however, were not safe from the ugly realities surrounding them.

One of the most seminal subjects explored in the novel was memory, a familiar subject in the landscape of Ogawa’s prose; it was the central theme in her equally popular novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. While memory was poignant in The Housekeeper and the Professor, memory in The Memory Police was portrayed as one of the biggest forms of resistance. R, an editor, was the community’s crusader, the primary vessel for the preservation of community and individual memory, and by extension, critical information. In one instance, he stopped the novelist from burning a photograph of her mother: “They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

To reduce The Memory Police to a political piece, a resistance piece, would undermine the novel’s subtler but equally grander themes. It was, after all, a multifaceted literary masterpiece. Its political overtones belie the deep rumination on the trauma of loss and death that the novel grappled with. Loss reverberated throughout the story. Death is a universal reality that everyone must grapple with. We want to preserve life as much as we want but the growing awareness of death’s lingering presence is one of an individual’s most profound experiences. We learn to accept, and consequently, cope. Somehow, the knowledge of impermanence and the awareness of our mortality has sobering effects.

“And I don’t want to go. I want to stay with you, but that won’t be possible. Your heart and mine are being pulled apart to such different distant places. Yours is overwhlowing with warmth and life and sounds and smells, but mine is growing cold and hard at a terrifying pace. At some point, it will break into a thousand pieces, shards of ice that will dissolve.”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Memory Police

The inhabitants of the island, especially those who can remember, have to deal with the looming losses. It starts with the slow disintegration of an object’s or a person’s physical manifestations. With the passage of time, memory also starts to disintegrate and disappear. But, as Ogawa subtly underscored, we still leave vestiges of ourselves, even if what we leave behind are trace amounts. We leave pieces of ourselves in the people we leave behind. Ogawa subtly depicted the sentiments attached to the disappearance of objects. Birds and flowers leave a lingering heaviness while there was far lesser importance attached to simpler and superfluous objects.

There is a certain level of ambiguity that hovered above the story. Context on the origin of the island was never provided by Ogawa. The dystopian world she conjured was to be taken as it was, including the unusual events that haunt the island. How the disappearances occurred was never fully explained. The presence of the memory police was stamped all over the island but no substantial amount of information was provided by Ogawa. How were they formed? Who are the powerful influences they represent? What happens to the people and the objects that disappear? A part of the reading journey was interpreting the events that transpire in the story.

Shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, the timelessness of The Memory Police was one of its finer facets. It was originally published in 1994 but the realities it has captured remain relevant in today’s context. It was also a richly layered narrative that can be explored through various lenses. With the tropes and the resonance of Orwellian elements, it was often marketed as a politically driven narrative, a resistance piece in response to the advent of dystopia and totalitarian states. But it is also a deep rumination of some of the most profound facets of human experience: the trauma of loss and acceptance of the inevitability of death. Both instances capture the volatility and the essence of memory. Undoubtedly, The Memory Police is a sterling literary achievement.

“You shouldn’t say that. You’re the same person now that you were when you wrote novels. The only thing that’s changed is that the books have been burned. But even if paper itself disappeares, words will remains. It will all be right, you’ll see. We haven’t lost the stories.”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Memory Police
Ratings

78%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
21%
Writing (25%) – 
20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
12%

Yōko Ogawa won me over with her slice-of-life novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor. It was a heartwarming story about the relationships we build with the people around us. It was because of this book that I wanted to explore more of Ogawa’s prose. Around that time, her latest translated work, The Memory Police was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. It was a no-brainer that the book will inevitably make it to my reading list. When I was finally able to obtain a copy of the book, I was surprised to learn it was published in the first half of the 1990s; it seems that her earlier works are getting translated into English following the success of her more recent works. The Memory Police was part of my 2021 Japanese literature reading month. I do admit that I wasn’t too keen on the book at first. The ambiguity and the lack of context did weigh down on my appreciation. Moreover, my perspective of the book was limited because of the prejudices I formed early in the story. However, after pondering on the book and the subjects it has explored, a sort of eureka moment was achieved. What seemed ambiguous at first started becoming clearer. Ogawa was brilliant.

Book Specs

Author: Yōko Ogawa
Translator (from Japanese): Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: July 2020
Number of Pages: 274
Genre: Science Fiction

Synopsis

On an unnamed island, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses. . . . Most of the inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few able to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten. When a young writer discovers that her editor is in danger, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards, and together they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past. Powerful and provocative, The Memory Police is a stunning novel about the trauma of loss.

About the Author

To learn more about the multi-awarded Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子), click here.