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‘The Memory Police’: a memorable read?

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa was originally published in Japan, in 1994, but only translated into English last year in 2019. Having been translated by Steven Snyder, the book received high levels of praise across English speaking countries. Both short and long-listed for the 2020 International Booker Prize, The Memory Police was also named a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature, receiving widespread critical acclaim. My own relationship with the novel, however, was one of mixed feelings. 

The story takes place on an unknown, unnamed island on which seemingly random objects keep disappearing entirely from the island. One day it’s ribbons, then birds and then progressively more important objects disappear without explanation. As they vanish, the memories of these objects go with them. All the people on the island wake up with no recollection of that item ever existing – at least, all but a handful of people who don’t forget. The reader experiences this island through the eyes of the unnamed protagonist, a young novelist, whose narrative runs parallel to that of her own novel-in-progress about a typist who is slowly losing her voice in captivity. 

The disheartening passiveness of the narrator and her friends made it difficult to invest oneself in their survival and wellbeing

While reading the novel, I struggled to get through a chapter in one sitting, finding myself frustrated with the complacency and ambivalence of characters as the disappearances left them jobless, parentless, impoverished and alone. The disheartening passiveness of the narrator and her friends made it difficult to invest oneself in their survival and wellbeing. When the eyes through which we view the story are so nonchalant towards their instincts of self-preservation, the consequences of any conflict driving a compelling plot are entirely removed; the reader is left with no stakes in the protagonist’s fate. 

The narration of the typist in our protagonist’s novel was equally, if not more, intolerable. Not only did she show no resistance to her captor, but the writing style was so elementary that any sophistication or nuance the plot may have held was diminished. Both narratives felt as if they had the potential for resistance but ultimately both protagonists proved to be completely acquiescent to their societal and interpersonal deterioration. 

Like a lot of Japanese literature, the writing was an exploration of emotion and humanity: it was about the ways in which humans are affected by drastic change

The book is marketed as dystopian, with strict regimes implemented by the memory police said to be reflective of Mao’s China, Nazi Germany and other dictatorial societies in history. Despite this, I found that it seemed to be lacking a real identity; some elements of romance, others resembling science fiction and a potential for low-fantasy. As I read on I hoped for the tone to click into place and form something cohesive, but unfortunately it never did. Likewise, as I read I hoped for questions to be answered about the memory police, the island and the context of this dystopian world: again, no answers. 

After turning the final page of the novel, I felt a wave of relief to have finished the story, thinking that I would easily forget it and move on. However, in hindsight The Memory Police has lingered in my mind more than I could have predicted. I think that perhaps I approached the unanswered questions in the wrong way. Like a lot of Japanese literature, the writing was an exploration of emotion and humanity: it was about the ways in which humans are affected by drastic change. Understanding this in hindsight has made me realise that the context of this strange world and the disappearances within it are unimportant, the focus is on the ways in which these disappearances affect its population. While admittedly this realisation doesn’t change my dislike for the writing style or characters for that matter, it does leave me less frustrated with the ambiguity of the story itself. I’m left considering and reconsidering each disappearance, the impacts on each character’s life, the impacts on society as a whole and many more factors.

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