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The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
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The Memory Police (1994)

by Yoko Ogawa

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209887,364 (4)22
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)
Member:deb80
Title:The Memory Police
Authors:Yoko Ogawa
Info:Harvill Secker
Collections:Your library, Books Read 2019
Rating:****1/2
Tags:fiction, japan, dystopia

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The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994)

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» See also 22 mentions

English (6)  French (2)  All languages (8)
Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Loss and memory are the subjects of this book which uses the trope of organized enforcement - the memory police - to give drama to the story, but any sense of purpose other than gather people who don't forget the disappeared things is not communicated to the reader. It is probably deeply allegorical or symbolic or something along those lines, but I don't go there. The language is somewhat hypnotic and the images are sometimes stunning, but it can be difficult to read in that it is often the opposite of absorbing and sends you to play fetch with your dog or the equivalent. ( )
  quondame | Dec 3, 2019 |
I don't know what to say about this book other that I am completely traumatized. ( )
  viviennestrauss | Nov 21, 2019 |
‘’Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here; my mother used to tell me when I was still a child. ‘’Transparent things, fragrant things...fluttery ones, bright ones...wonderful things you can’t possibly imagine. It’s a shame that the people who live here haven’t been able to hold such marvelous things in their hearts and minds, but that’s just the way it is one this island. Things go on disappearing, one by one. It won’t be long now’’, she added. ‘’You’ll see for yourself. Something will disappear from your life.’’

In an unnamed island, time passes quietly carrying the years of the islanders along the way. The years and the memories. Literally. Objects we all take for granted have disappeared. Ribbons, bells, precious stone, perfume, flowers, fruit. Objects and notions are being forgotten, along with feelings and thoughts. The elders of the community hide the secrets of the past in their eyes and hearts, unable to share them because the Memory Police is there to enforce the disappearances. Becoming more and more brutal, they persecute the ones who dare to react by preserving tokens of the lost objects or the citizens who are genetically unable to forget. The Memory Police wants to create a community where every thought and feeling will have become a thing of the past, lost and forgotten until there’s nothing left, until everyone is soulless.

‘’I wonder how the wind could tell the roses from all the other flowers.’’

This is my first Ogawa novel and it proved to be one of the strangest, most haunting reading experiences. Behind the scenery of a form of a totalitarian regime, Ogawa presents issues that provide ample material for contemplation and discussion. What is the significance of Memory? How does it define the world we know? A ribbon is a ribbon because we know its name, we recognise its use. If we wake up one morning and decide that it is time to discard every ribbon we own, forget its existence and go on living, how will this change affect us? Once we forget every gift of Nature, every object mankind has created since the dawn of time, we will simply cease to exist.

‘’I sometimes wonder what I’d see if I could hold your heart in my hands.’’

Ogawa creates a story/parable of disappearing notions and objects to refer to freedom of thought and speech, demonstrating the strong bond between our feelings and experiences and the way we perceive the world through our senses. We see an object, we smell a perfume, we listen to a melody and thoughts start flooding our mind. Without these stimuli, we are empty vessels. And this is exactly what regimes need. Empty moulds that have lost the ability to think and feel. Let us think of our past. Hitler and Stalin tried to create a ‘’clean sheet’’ out of troubled societies, controlling everything. But Thought and Memory cannot be controlled. Not even by monsters.

Ogawa chooses not to name the country the story is set in. The heroine and the cast of characters remain nameless. Even the editor whom the young woman is trying to protect is simply called ‘’R’’. This choice intensifies the haunting atmosphere and the universality of the themes. The main character is a very sympathetic, tangible woman. Sensitive, brave and determined to keep the spirit and the memory of her parents alive. She is a human being who thinks and feels, experiencing the dilemmas and fears of the one who tries to swim against the current, having lost her mother and father to the Memory Police.

‘’Autumn passed quickly. The crushing of the waves was sharp and cold, and the wind brought the winter clouds from beyond the mountains.’’

In literary terms, this novel is quietly devastating. Haunting and atmospheric, its prose is hypnotic and unassumingly philosophical. The autumnal scenes and the long winter that seems to be unwilling to leave the island create a melancholic setting that makes the looming threat of the Memory Police a little more bearable. The scenes of the disappearing roses will make you cry.The dialogue is poetic and the extracts of the novel written by the main character add another dimension to the plot. Written 15 years ago, this novel has all the characteristics of Japanese Literature and succeeds in creating a Dystopian setting that is effective and terrifying. Most of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon wannabe-Dystopian writers could learn a thing or two by reading Ogawa’s masterpiece. I doubt they will, though…

‘’I make my living now from my writing. So far, I've published three novels. The first was about a piano tuner who wanders through music chops and concert halls searching for her lover, a pianist, who has vanished. She relies solely on the sound of his music that lingers in her ears. The second was about a ballerina who lost her right leg in an accident and lives in a greenhouse with her boyfriend, who is a botanist. And the third was about a young woman nursing her younger brother, who suffers from a disease that is destroying his chromosomes. Each one told the story of something that had been disappeared.’’

Many thanks to Pantheon and Edelweiss for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.wordpress.com/ ( )
  AmaliaGavea | Nov 21, 2019 |
‘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 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ogawa, Yokoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
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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