‘Research’ indicates Yoko Ogawa (1962- ) must be one of Japan’s most accomplished writers. Until I picked this book up I hadn’t heard of her, though quite a number of you obviously had, from your comments when you saw I was reading it, no doubt from its shortlisting for the 2020 Booker.
Wikipedia says Ogawa “has published more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction” only some of which have been translated into English (9 maybe). I’m most impressed by her co-writing An Introduction to the World’s Most Elegant Mathematics, which sadly doesn’t seem to be one of the ones translated.
My first impression of The Memory Police was that it was both slow and dry, and it may have taken me till halfway to get over that. By the end I was entranced.
Is it Science Fiction? Most of the reviews say it is, and I have very little (ok, no) knowledge of the SF tradition in Japan. It is certainly SF in the way that Murakami is SF; which is to say surreal rather than sciencey. One reviewer draws parallels with 1984 and Brave New World. I guess the Memory Police of the title are a bit Brave New World-ish, but for me the dystopian element was minor.
The basis of the story is that a young woman writer living on one of Japan’s lesser islands, in a small village on the coast, a bus and train ride from the regional centre, is writing a novel about a young woman. We see excerpts from that novel, they are not labelled but are in slightly different type – Courier rather than Times, maybe, and I didn’t pick them up straight away.
The story of the novel we are reading is that things are disappearing, that most people quickly forget what it is that has disappeared, and that those who cannot forget are rounded up and interned by the Memory Police.
The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. … It took patience to figure out what was gone.
Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast … I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything.
The young woman’s father, an ornithologist, has died. Her mother, a sculptor, is one of those who don’t forget, she shows the then little girl keepsakes, relics long gone, but then she too is gone, or taken by the Police. Her old nanny dies, and so she is alone in the house, her only friend the old man, the nanny’s husband, who lives in a boat stranded on the beach. A ferryman whose ferry has disappeared.
The story of the novel being written is that a girl is in a class learning to type. Lessons are in a church with a clock tower. She becomes the lover of the young man teaching them. Her voice goes away and she can only speak to him by typing. And then the typewriter seizes up. Her lover takes her up to the room behind the clock, a room full of broken, seized typewriters …
A family, friends of the young woman writer’s parents, are rememberers. They come to her, bringing some of her mother’s sculptures, on their way into hiding.
The editor, R, who is working with her on her novel, also remembers. The old man proposes that they hide him, that she hides him, in a space below her study floor. R comes, leaving behind a wife and baby. Every night she brings him food and pages from her writing. They discuss what has disappeared. Her tries to convince her of the importance of remembering even a small part of what has been lost. Of course she is all he sees and they become close.
Then novels disappear. She gives R her manuscript, which already has no meaning for her, and some books selected almost at random. The townsfolk gather to burn books in great bonfires which burn all night. The library itself is torched.
I followed the arc of the last book as it tumbled through the air – and suddenly I realized that long ago, I had stood at this same window with my father and looked out at a similar sight… “A bird.” I remembered. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving nothing behind but the burning night.
Now she cannot write. But R persuades her to keep trying, to write a word, a line, a sentence.
Disappearances continue. Her novel comes to an end. This novel comes to an end.
Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, first pub. 1994. Translated from the original Japanese, Stephen Snyder, Vintage, London, 2019. 274pp