Yoko Ogawa has been recognized worldwide for her vivid writing, which manages to naturally depict everyday life while also confronting more omnipresent social issues so effortlessly that it almost feels unintentional. Her most recent book to be translated into English, The Memory Police, was originally released in Japanese almost 30 years ago and resonates with those who crave enigmatic allegories and the chilling sensation that dystopia might be closer to reality than ever before.
The Memory Police follows the story of a young novelist who remains unnamed throughout the book, along with all of the other protagonists – if one can even call our three main characters protagonists, as this book features a notable lack of the predictable constructs of good and evil that dominate most literature. They live on a secluded island, with no recognizable aspects to specify its location. Instead, it exists in a hazy idealistic setting, expressing the core truths of humanity without the unnecessary distractions of the environment. On this island, items are steadily being “forgotten” by the inhabitants. While the objects still exist, their names and the memories associated with them become foreign and distant, forever out of reach – except for a few, who maintain their memories as those around them begin to lose their identities.
“That’s just the way it is on this island. Things go on disappearing, one by one. It won’t be long now […] something will disappear from your life.”
Those still retaining their knowledge of the forgotten objects are tracked by the Memory Police, a militant force intent on preserving the amnesia of the island.
“The first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances.”
Though reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 in its underlying dystopian themes and drawing comparisons to a wide variety of literature, The Memory Police is entirely unique in its voice and the subtlety through which it conveys the value of memory. The message is clear, but not omnipresent, leaving the reader with lingering questions without outright stating the answers. Musings of loss and longing, along with the search for human identity and reality are echoed in the haunting side story. Featuring a typing student who loses her voice and, eventually, her humanity, this rendition of the narrator’s barely completed novel is an uneasy parallel to the memory loss of the island.
With lyrical prose and a meandering plot, The Memory Police is not for those who prefer a simple rising action, climax, and conclusion. Instead, it acts as an eerie observation, documenting the lives of those on the island as the disappearances continue and the effects become more and more drastic. Ogawa writes in a light, almost gentle, tone, sharply contrasting to the content of the book. Thus, it creates a narrative that is sinister without being threatening; thought-provoking without being insistent. Left with nothing but hair-raising revelations on disappearance, memory, and resistance, the reader is forced to come to terms with what makes us human. This sagacious novel will make readers question their judgment on who we are and explore life’s intriguing journey, filled both with memories soon to form and those half-forgotten.
Asha Torczon is a staff reporter.
Edited by Bishalakshmi Bagchi.
Feature image from Firstpost.com