The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder, Pantheon Books, 2019.
On an unnamed island, things are disappearing at the discretion of a fascist government. Once the Memory Police declares an object “disappeared,” they completely erase it from the consciousness of the island’s helpless inhabitants. In most cases, things disappear without pushback: “soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.”
With each new day, more and more is missing. The once bustling island is becoming hollow. When the Memory Police eradicate photographs, the narrator explains, “a new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again.” A week later, she can no longer recall the concept of “smooth pieces of paper that captured someone’s image”—her eyes blindly glazing over all forgotten objects.
The narrator’s mother, however, is an anomaly—she remembers. For reasons unknown, she is immune to the Memory Police’s control, and this power makes her dangerous to the perpetuity of the fascist regime. Are there others like her, others who do not forget? If such people exist, how long can they survive under the close, constant watch of the merciless Memory Police?
The unnamed narrator is a published author, although she admits that her profession is undesirable, unprofitable. Books enfold moments in time—fictional or otherwise—allowing readers to savor an experience, a thing, a feeling. Consequently, it is not surprising that books are unpopular on an island where the government demands its inhabitants to forget, erase, and ignore without hesitation. Yet she writes every day from two p.m. to midnight.
Fittingly, all of the narrator’s novels center on loss and deterioration, echoing the paramount dilemma of her island. For instance, her first novel follows the fruitless search of a piano tuner as she hopelessly chases the ghostly melodies of her lover, a composer who has disappeared. In her second novel, a ballerina tragically loses her leg—her identity and dreams shattered. As the narrator works on her new project about a typist who is losing her voice under mysterious circumstances, she discovers a dangerous secret about her editor. Like her mother, he remembers. The Memory Police’s controlling rhetoric is unable to penetrate his mind. Like her mother, his life and the lives of those around him are at risk.
Teaming up with her only confidant, a retired boat mechanic forced into early retirement by the disappearance of boats, will the narrator be able to successfully hide and protect her editor? How long do they have until the very ground they stand on disappears?
The Memory Police asks readers to consider the dangers of forgetting. Is it possible to forget loved ones, even oneself? What do people forfeit when they obey blindly? What is lost when people ignore the forgetfulness and intentional ignorance of their leaders? The Memory Police is an alarming exploration of the deafening loudness of silence.
Samantha Hunter is a Library Assistant 1 in the Mebane Children’s department of the Alamance County Public Library. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.