The Memory Police: A Book Review

What would you do if you woke up one morning and your memories of objects disappeared one after another? Read The Memory Police to find out.

(Spoilers ahead)

August is celebrated in the literary world as Women In Translation Month, a much awaited time when book bloggers, publishers, passionate bookworms all get on board to talk about, promote and review works of translated literature by women across the world. Women In Translation Month (also known as WIT) was first started in 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski who felt that works of translation in the publishing world, and especially those written by women, weren’t accorded much importance. Only a third of the translated literature published in the UK and the US are those by women. This points to a continuing trend of sexism that pervades the corporate publishing world – works by men are favoured more frequently than those by women. It speaks of a larger culture of not just publishers but also translators who are more eager to work with and promote men than women writers. 

In more recent years, since the founding of WIT month, there has been an uptick in the consumption of translated literature by women. Websites like Asymptote and Literary Hub churn out articles on the topic as well as interviews with the authors, while bookstagrammers on Instagram have also contributed to the conversation by reading, reviewing, commenting on and ultimately, promoting such works in aesthetically laid out pictures with insightful captions. It is safe to say that with more voices being added to the mix everyday, world literature is enriched even further with the incorporation of such diversity.


One of the celebrated authors in the spotlight today is Yoko Ogawa, a Japanese writer, who has published more than fifty works of fiction as well as non-fiction. She has written for the New Yorker, Zoetrope and A Public Space. Some of her popular titles include The Housekeeper and the Professor, The Memory Police and Hotel Iris. The Memory Police was even shortlisted as one of the finalists in the 2020 International Booker Prize. Known for the masterful use of her pen to explore the psychological condition of her protagonists, Ogawa employs artful descriptions of emotions, desires, and moods. Any reader who picks up Ogawa’s work is introduced to a certain Japanese way of life, one that is mired in the daily realities of life edged with a shroud of mist, blurring the lines between dreams and reality.

Such is the atmospheric world in The Memory Police, first published in 1994 and translated by Stephen Snyder. Imagine an unnamed island, full of inhabitants who live ordinarily like we do – except there’s something different in the air. One fine day, you could wake up, and something innocuous has just “disappeared”. It could be roses, birds, perfumes, or maybe even the concept of months. The inhabitants of Ogawa’s unnamed little Japanese island face this problem as one by one, their memories of objects they once held dear disappear. When one notices what it is that has “disappeared”, the people all gather at the river or at an empty space and set afloat or burn down every trace of the object. When the last vestiges of the object are gone, the memory of that object disappears too. It is so subtle and natural that one almost never remembers what was missing.

The question of secretly hiding an object does not arise. The mass forgetting is enforced by a mysterious outfit called the Memory Police, who ensure, even with brutal means if necessary, that the chosen object is erased for good. While it is anyway illicit to keep the forbidden objects, there is something far more dangerous. Some select people on the island do not Forget. Their memories retain the knowledge of the existence of the disappeared objects and, therefore, their very existence is a threat to the State. The narrator protagonist finds herself in an impossible situation when she realizes that R, her editor of the novel she is writing, is one of those people.

What follows is an account of trust, secrecy, confidentiality, fear, despondency and suspense. With the help of her trusted friend, the old man, the protagonist constructs a room under the floorboards for R. As objects disappear one by one, it also becomes a space for R to collect some of the objects as keepsakes, further adding to the intrigue. 

As objects disappear, and the protagonist continues her subterfuge, there is another meta-fiction unfolding in the novel. The novel she is writing serves as a sign post in the plot, as she writes about a romance gone horribly wrong between a young girl and her typist teacher, who ends up keeping her captive and stealing her of her voice.

The plot is heavy with symbolism and complex metaphors. The most obvious reading one can glean is that there is a totalitarian regime running the island with an iron grip. It is a bleak, dystopian world and there seems to be no way out for the inhabitants. Like the world George Orwell created in 1984, Ogawa deftly explores the various ways in which a totalitarian regime can permeate, consume and hold captive its subjects. Paranoia, one of the most common tropes of a dystopian novel chronicling a surveillance state controlling its citizens, grips the lives and minds of the citizens as they become obsessed with destroying any evidence of the disappeared object. The protagonist herself becomes consumed with her secret of hiding R in the secret annex. The fear of being found out hounds her at every step and she becomes extra conscious of watching her words and actions. Not only is this reminiscent of dystopian novels, the Kafkaesque angle of the bureaucratic system is also not lost on the reader.   

The evocative and atmospheric prose also lends to the magic realism infused in the tale. As objects disappear and people’s memories get gradually wiped out, Ogawa seems to be asking us what else is lost when objects lose meaning and relevance. With a delicate passivity that underscores the developments of the novel, the protagonist finds herself to be changing imperceptibly as she continues to forget with a certain detachment about her sense of loss. At one point, she discusses with R if the inhabitants are also changing and he responds, “…I do know that you’re changing, and not in a way that can be easily reversed or undone. It seems to be leading towards an end that frightens me a big deal.”

 Ogawa here deftly associates memory not only with the psychological symbolism of the mind, but also draws connections with hearts and what they can hold within them. The heart acts as a leitmotif throughout the novel, reminding the reader that memories are stored there just as much as in the mind, and that though minds can be erased, the heart doesn’t seem to act the same way. With the editor retaining his memories, the protagonist compares his heart to a warm and “slippery thing” and wonders if there are people elsewhere whose hearts are full. The message is clear: when we allow a fascist state to take control and comply with detachment, we compromise on our “hearts”. The differences are drawn: warm and cold hearts, one with life and memories, the other cold and dying, an eternal winter like the one that envelops the island. 

A fascist state enforces its timelessness through destroying records. History, storytelling, and all means of record keeping are a threat to a state that tries to erase the past and put itself out of time and history. When there is no history to remember, one cannot yearn for a better time. Much like the inhabitants of Plato’s cave, the subjects crystallise within the reality created by the oppressive force. The collective amnesia of a traumatised people aids and abets the steady growth of such an agenda. When it sets in, there is also the losing of one’s voice, one’s self, one’s entire identity. So when the people of the unnamed island forget one thing after another, and then forget about forgetting, their hearts become more “diluted” and they lose their sense of self. There is no protest because there is nothing to protest for. Only a passive acceptance of things as they are and a fatalistic attitude apprehending the end. 

In the midst of all this, the protagonist’s work in progress, a novel about a controlling man who steals his pupil’s voice by trapping her in an abusive romance, also reflects the attitudes of the relationship between an oppressive state and its subjects. Much like Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert isolating his Lolita, Ogawa uses the second running tale to parallel the way fascist states first charm, seduce and then imprison their subjects in a manner that is almost unnoticeable at first. Gaslighting and manipulation are common means of subjugating victims and then controlling them. A fascist state that manipulates reality and creates their own version of events is no different.

The protagonist pushing on to complete the novel after novels have “disappeared” is one major act of resistance in the novel, underlying the importance of creativity in the face of suppression. The other major act of resistance is the construction of the secret room where they hide R and salvage some of the items that continue to disappear. The items accumulate in the depths of the hidden room along with R and his reservoir of memories. The hidden room represents the depths of our consciousness, the inner room where we collect and harbour our deepest desires and memories, a place linked to our hearts that refuses to be worn thin with the dilution of forgetfulness. Repression can only go so far and R serves as a symbol of that part of the unconsciousness that doesn’t really forget. It also serves as a powerful expression of hope in the bleak light of the novel.

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is as relevant today as it was in 1994 when it was published. The timelessness of the novel is proof that we need reminders of the power that creativity holds in transmitting messages of hope amidst trauma to us. The subtlety of language and the quiet passive detachment running through the novel is a testament to the brilliance of Japanese literary tradition in Ogawa’s pen. In a world where increasing state surveillance is an everyday reality, we need to ask ourselves if we too have given in to it with the passive detachment and acceptance like the inhabitants of the island. 

The novel’s message isn’t just political, though. It also raises difficult-to-answer questions about the nature of relationships, art, love, beauty, of what we hold dear and why we choose to do so. The inherent value of objects and sentimentality is woven hypnotically in and leaves one wondering about the evanescence of the material world around us and its meaning we construct for ourselves. The slow-paced, evocative and melancholic tone of the book leaves the reader captivated, as if watching a slow, rhythmic motion. For those with a literary bent in their reading taste, they will appreciate the philosophical undertones of the book. If one is looking for an immersive experience for Women In Translation month, one need look no further.

Recommended: Read another short story review here

Rizowana Hussaini

Rizowana Hussaini

Rizowana Hussaini is a first year PhD Student in English Literature, a poet and a book blogger. She is working on Literatures of Resistance, specifically focusing on Muslim women’s writing in the area. A lover of words and all things literary, she is devoted to decoding and breaking down analysis of books she reads. She is typically drawn to literary fiction, world literature, women’s writing, historical fiction, magic realism and the occasional poetry/short story collection. Her poetry can be found at the Daily Riyaaz blog and at the literary journal Vayavya. She has also been published at The Bastion. She can be found talking about books, cats and rainy days over at @giltedged_reads


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