Book Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

An architect friend, whose speciality is restoration, tells me that one of the problems he and his firm face is finding expert knowledge of old construction methods and techniques. A story possibly apocryphal: after the York Minster fire of 1984, the leading expert in stained glass restoration was a murderer who had devoted himself the craft during his incarceration. Trusted and towards the end of his sentence, he visited site daily until the work was done, whereupon he simply walked away. Whether such skills are available for the restoration of Notre-Dame in Paris is an open question. Until recently, we saved our computer documents by clicking on the symbol of a three-and-a-half inch floppy disc, unknown to most people born in the past twenty-five years. Now the symbol itself has been consigned to what Yoko Ogawa calls the “swamp of our memory”. Forgetting and its phantom loss is the theme of her 1994 novel, The Memory Police, now published in English in a translation by Stephen Snyder.

Set upon an unnamed island whose residents might wake to find objects – roses, hats, birds, libraries – have been disappeared by the titular Memory Police, no less ruthless than the secret police of a twentieth-century dictatorship, the novel follows the course of a writer, an old man from her childhood and her editor. Like the majority of the islands inhabitants, the first of these two participate in the ritual destruction of these objects, covering rivers with petals, burning photographs, no longer comprehending their meaning. The third though is among the persecuted who, like the disappeared writer’s sculptor mother, cannot forget. For his safety, he is hidden in a secret room in the writer’s house while she continues her novel about a woman who loses her voice and can only communicate through her typewriter. 

In this world, where even the forgetful fear that old things are disappearing faster than new ones are created, human relationships endure, but only to a heartbreaking point. What conversation can exist between those who remember and those who forget? More subtly, it asks questions about our personal and spiritual relationships to our material and ultimately corporeal existence.  

Although technological advance does not play a role here, The Memory Police speaks to our own headlong embrace of technological “progress” even as we forget how to build cathedrals, read cursive or stare at the symbols on our screens in blank, thoughtless incomprehension. It also resonates with our current concern with the destruction of cultures, personal meaning, and the forms of knowledge our contemporary technologies find inconvenient.

This is a story rich in sinister metaphor and whose various strands create a puzzle of complicity and resistance. It is vital, urgent and exquisite.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Vintage $22.00

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