The Memory Police
Japanese Title: 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na kesshō)
Author: Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2019 (United States)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
The Memory Police is set on an island isolated from the rest of the world. The island is large enough to support a hospital, a university, and even a publishing company with a bustling lobby, but its community is small enough to be able to gather together for significant events. Like her parents before her, the narrator has lived on this island her entire life, and she takes its idiosyncrasies for granted.
The narrator’s island is cozy, with lovely bakeries and gardens. No one seems worried about money, and the narrator is able to live in a comfortable house despite the fact that the only work she does is writing novels that, by her own admission, no one reads. The novel focuses on the small details of everyday life, and it’s only gradually that the peacefulness and nostalgia of the narrative begin to unravel.
Every so often an object will “disappear.” Almost overnight, whatever has disappeared will not just vanish from the world, but from people’s memories as well. It’s never entirely clear how this works, but no one questions it. In some cases, such as perfume and photographs, the objects that disappear must be discarded, usually by means of being ritually thrown into a river or incinerated. In other cases, such as when the concept of “fruit” disappears, all the fruit on the island literally falls from the trees to the ground. Once something disappears, all perception of it disappears as well, and people aren’t able to recognize something that’s disappeared even if they’re looking at it. Even idiomatic expressions change, as in the case of “to hit two creatures with one stone” after birds disappear. The world of the narrator is limited, but her attention to detail is precise, so even small disappearances carry an emotional weight.
Some people don’t lose their memories, however, and this is where the eponymous memory police come in. This is also where the novel becomes dystopian, with midnight arrests, people suddenly going missing, families fleeing, and all records of these incidents buried deep within an impenetrable bureaucracy. The narrator’s mother, who worked as a sculptor and kept a variety of disappeared objects hidden in a cabinet, was an early casualty of the memory police, leaving the narrator an orphan.
The narrator gradually realizes that her editor is also immune to disappearances, and she resolves to keep him safe by hiding him in a sealed room in the basement of her house while his pregnant wife flees to a rural area north of the city, ostensibly for the sake for her health. As her editor continues to read and comment on her manuscript in secret, an intimacy develops between him and the narrator, which is reflected in the strange and surreal excerpts from her novel interspersed throughout the main story.
As the novel progresses, the rate of disappearances increases, an alarming trend that is exacerbated by environmental disaster. At the end of the story, the concept of “disappearances” is followed to its logical conclusion in an undeniably disturbing yet surprisingly soft and gentle manner.
The Memory Police is dystopian horror fiction reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s also a meditation on the ghosts that quietly follow us without ever attracting our notice. There may be no memory police in the real world, but we still forget things all the time, and we forget them so thoroughly that we don’t even realize we’ve forgotten them. The narrator is just as susceptible to these small disappearances as everyone else, but what sets her apart is that she understands the value of remembering and the importance of preservation. By maintaining a diversity of small narratives, the larger narrative represented by the memory police – namely, that which is not productive must be aggressively forgotten – can be resisted. The novel works on multiple levels as historical and political allegory, but it’s also universal and deeply personal.
The Memory Police was originally published in 1994, but it feels contemporary, fresh, and relevant. There are no specific cultural markers in the text, and most characters names are abbreviated as single letters, which confers an air of timelessness to the story. If any work of Japanese fiction might be recommended to a broad general audience with no knowledge of Japan, it would be this novel. The Memory Police is brilliant and extraordinary, and it refuses to be forgotten.