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The Memory Police: A Novel by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police: A Novel (1994)

by Yoko Ogawa

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1356137,000 (4.04)12
A compelling speculative mystery by one of Japan's greatest writers. Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed. When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn't forget, and it's becoming increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next? The Memory Police is a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, from one of Japan's greatest writers. 'One of Japan's most acclaimed authors explores truth, state surveillance and individual autonomy. Echoes 1984, Fahrenheit 451,and 100 Years of Solitude, but it has a voice and power all its own.' Time Magazine… (more)
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English (3)  French (2)  All languages (5)
Showing 3 of 3
‘The meaning isn’t important. What matters is the story hidden deep in the words. You’re at the point now where you’re trying to extract that story. Your soul is trying to bring back the things it lost in the disappearances.’

First published in 1994 with the original Japanese title ‘Hisoyaka na Kessho’ (roughly translated as ‘secret crystallizations’), Yoko Ogawa’s dystopian novel now gets an English translation from the ever-excellent Stephen Snyder. This is a quietly devastating study of an unseen authoritarian regime and its enforcers, the Memory Police of the title, and an island population that somehow tries to keep the one thing hidden away that can’t be controlled.

The island is unnamed, as are most of the characters. Our main narrator is a novelist, and the two main relationships she has in the book define her and her situation: R, her editor, who keeps his memories of those things which are disappeared and so is in constant fear of being found out; and the Old Man, the husband of the narrator’s late nurse, who becomes a father-figure to her. Within this narrative is our narrator’s own novel which she is writing, about a singer who loses her voice and takes up typing lessons, only for it to develop into a strangely-controlling relationship with her teacher. This story within a story gives an extra framework with which to view the book: people who are trapped, and the possibility within the creative process to forge a space where resistance to an overwhelming ideology is possible. Many residents of the island hide individuals, even whole families, who keep their memories, and our narrator hides R in a small, concealed room in her home. Ogawa herself has spoken of reading Anne Frank’s diary and there is a strong connection here with the trapped girl, whose only escape from the reality of horror was her writing.

The novel is lyrical, Ogawa’s prose a subtle and gentle observer of the events unfolding. The disappearances are quietly done, often disturbingly beautiful: roses are disappeared and the rivers fill with the entrancingly beautiful spectacle of millions of rose petals being washed out to sea; birds, too, disappear, and at one later point a solitary bird is fleetingly seen by our narrator but she is unable to remember what it is. As the novel progresses the disappearances pick up pace, and become alarmingly close to home, ending with some hauntingly moving images as the relationship between the narrator and her editor reaches its conclusion.

Ogawa is confident enough to leave the many questions each reader will have unanswered; we learn nothing of the regime behind the disappearances, the Memory Police being the symbol of this authoritarian rule. We have no idea just how these disappearances occur: how can an entire island population forget what a hat is, or what sweets taste like? And, perhaps disconcertingly for some readers, there is no neatly tied-up conclusion. The novel ends as it begins: quietly, lyrically, movingly. For me, this is where the power of the book resides, for this is more a subtle celebration of the artistic, creative spirit to face-up to what horrors confront it. Twenty-five years on from its original publication The Memory Police is, perhaps, even more relevant in today’s world. Anyone who comes to it will recognize the threats we face today: disappearing species and personal liberties, and the growing presence of extreme politics. How we confront that in our own ways is what matters. For our narrator, it is through her writing, as her editor assures her: ‘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.’

This is a genuinely bewitching novel, hauntingly moving and beautifully crafted by the talented Yoko Ogawa. The questions it asks are much more important than any answers it gives, and for that it deserves to be read. A 5 stars must-read, for sure. ( )
1 vote Alan.M | Oct 8, 2019 |
A meditation on the prevention of loss and the struggle to remember. This story could be interpreted through several lenses. I chose to see this as a metaphor for the progress of Alzheimers disease. The narrator understands that life is disappearing in random chunks and is powerless to share her comprehension. Very well done; a sparseness of text highlights the emotions of the characters. ( )
  RmCox38111 | Sep 23, 2019 |
What are we without memories? Would we even truly exist? Just as in his lovely novella, "The Housekeeper And The Professor", Ogawa addresses the role of memory for human beings. The reader is left pondering how a culture can exist without retaining memory. An elegant, disturbing novel. ( )
  hemlokgang | Sep 15, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Yoko Ogawaprimary authorall editionscalculated
Comrie, TylerCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kato-Kiriyama, TraciNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Snyder, StephenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first - among all the things that have vanished from the island.
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