My latest read was The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa. I have been adding more “popular” books to my reading list over the past year. This 1994 Japanese science fiction novel was translated to English by Stephen Snyder and published in 2019. It was well-received with strong reviews in Time, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Plowshares. It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2020. Amazon recently announced it will be adapting the novel to film.
The novel is set on a small remote island. An unidentified force causes everyday objects like hats and roses to “disappear.” As part of each disappearance, people get rid of or destroy those things if they have any. They also lose their own memories about the thing that disappeared. There are some people who retain their memories. An organization known as the Memory Police make sure that the objects are destroyed and hunt down people who retain their memories.
The main character is a young woman who is a writer. She writes novels. Her father was an ornithologist and her mother was a sculptor. Her mother was one of the people who maintained her memories and she saved things that disappeared in a chest in her studio in the basement of her house. She would take these out and share them with her daughter. Early in the story, her mother is asked to come in to meet with the Memory Police. While she is gone, she has a purported “heart attack” and passes away. Her father also passes away shortly after that.
The young author has two other people in her life who become her mainstays after her parent’s deaths. One is an old man who was a family friend. The other is her editor known as “R” in the book.”R” is one of the people who retain their memories. When he receives a notice to come in from the Memory Police, the young novelist does not want to “lose” him. With the old man’s assistance, she comes up with a scheme to hide him in a small room under the floorboards of her house.
The main part of the story occurs after “R” comes to the young novelists house to hide. The “ante” on the disappearances keeps being raised as things like birds, books, and even people’s legs, arms and other body parts disappear. The main story is interlaced with excepts from the young author’s work in progress novel which features a typist whose voice is taken from her. The story explores loss and how people cope with it.
I was not as “positive” about this book as I expected to be. The prose was not always “tight.” It may be much stronger in Japanese. There were some technical flaws like ID cards still having photos after photos disappeared. I am also not sure I agree with the premise that people would just accept what was happening to them. Maybe that is a cultural bias on my part. Overall, another “highly regarded” book that disappointed me.
The Memory Police
A haunting Orwellian novel about the terrors of state surveillance, from the acclaimed author of The Housekeeper and the Professor.
On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power 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 woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.
A surreal, provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, The Memory Police is a stunning new work from one of the most exciting contemporary authors writing in any language.