Ever since Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, I made a vow to own and read anything written by the writer. To read Ogawa is to experience quiet brilliance and elegiac enchantment. Her stories speak volumes by sometimes leaving things unsaid. With her latest, The Memory Police, published in 1994, finally translated in 2019, the moment I finished the last sentence I wanted to turn back to page one to read it again.
On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.
When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.
Written in an understated and gentle prose, The Memory Police lulls you in and proffers a profound meditation on loss, memories and survival in a totalitarian regime. It starts off with a sense of urgency in a state of dystopia under constant surveillance but ends on a sense of thought provoking existentialism. You could also read it as an allegory of a person suffering from Dementia struggling to hold on to nuggets of memories.
In The Memory Police, memories are associative in that if roses disappear, everything associated with it, be it photographs or even memories, is erased. If you still remember it, you are in danger. The Memory Police will take you away and you will not see the light of the day again.
The tension is quiet, the danger feels real and the loss is palpable. There are two stories happening at the same time – one is the current world the narrator, who is a writer, is living in and the other is a love story the narrator is telling, which makes a bizarre turn in the final act. Ogawa offers no pat and easy answers, but the social alienation and dislocation feels particularly relevant in today’s world.
This is a review I hope words do not elude me so that I can do it justice, but alas words failed me in my amateurish attempt. I enclosed an eloquent review that captures everything I want to say and more.
***** / 5