Books

'The Memory Police': An island where a good memory won't do you any favors

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Hope is a silent revolution for the oppressed, as Yoko Ogawa’s newly translated “The Memory Police” reveals. In the novel, originally published in 1994, Ogawa lays open a hushed defiance against a totalitarian regime by training her prodigious talent on magnifying the efforts of those who persistently but quietly rebel.

The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Snyder.
288 pages
PANTHEON, Fiction.

The book finds our unnamed narrator, a novelist on an unnamed island, dispassionately recording the gradual loss of objects and the memories associated with them. Disappeared items include the mundane, like calendars or candies; the precious, like emeralds or books; and the living, like roses or birds.

Within this diminishing world, a sinister state-sanctioned force, the Memory Police, hunts for the few individuals who cannot forget the missing objects. One was the narrator’s mother, who died in mysterious circumstances after being taken away by the government several years before the story begins.

Juxtaposed between the narrator’s record of her daily life is the manuscript of her current novel about a singer who has lost her voice, trapped in a disquieting relationship with her typing teacher. When the narrator realizes her editor is also one who cannot forget, she sets out to hide him with the help of a trusted neighbor, the Old Man. Their stealthy efforts and steady friendship ultimately reflect humanity’s enduring compassion and capacity to survive.

“I feel that’s what novels are supposed to do. They are supposed to make small voices heard,” Ogawa says. “The little things of everyday life are present in all novels — things that everyone feels, but don’t put into words. I hope that the inner voices of the characters will quietly spread with each person who reads the book.”

Ogawa refers to the original Japanese title, “Hisoyaka na Kessho,” a metaphor for something precious that forms in the dark recesses of suppression, roughly translated to “secret crystallizations.” It’s an idea that has fascinated Ogawa ever since she read a classic of literature.

“‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ is what made me start writing,” says Ogawa, “‘The Memory Police’ was a way of returning to my starting point. Even though Anne Frank was confined in a small space, she became free when she was writing her diary.

“Looking back at what I’ve written so far, I realize that I’ve always written stories about people who are trapped in some way,” Ogawa says. “Although confined in a small space, they develop their own unique perspective of their own world. This novel depicts a hopeless situation, but it also shows that no matter how hard the state tries to control people and rob them of their rights, there is always something that each person holds that belongs only to them that the state can never take away — something hidden deep within.”

Ogawa chose to populate the novel with artists to amplify this creative force within: The writer’s mother was a sculptor, and she writes about a musician. It’s a deliberate contrast to the wall of authoritarian control.

“In our society, people who create things, like artists, are not in a position to make strong social statements,” she says. “They express themselves through their art and live on the fringes of society. They’re not useful. The things that would be the first to go, if people were to pick things to get rid of, would be things that aren’t considered useful — like novels.

“Japanese education is already moving in that direction. If we think this way, then it’s hard to say why literature itself is useful, but to tell the truth, people are generally happiest doing things that aren’t considered useful. I portrayed these characters as artists because it was the sharpest contrast I could think of to the Memory Police.”

Although it took nearly 25 years for the book to be published in English, Ogawa says wryly that “sadness never grows old.” Stephen Snyder, a master craftsman of the macabre who has translated Ryu Murakami and Kanae Minato in addition to other works by Ogawa, renders mesmerizingly direct prose that perfectly mirrors the mundane horror of an oppressed existence where even memory is controlled: “Silence fell around us all, as through we were steeling ourselves for the next disappearance, which would no doubt come — perhaps even tomorrow. So it was that evening came to the island.”

“I’ve gotten to know Snyder quite well though this project and I feel very good about having him do it,” Ogawa says. “The relationship between the writer and the translator is rather unique and we tend to communicate with eye contact since we don’t speak the same language, but we have the novel in common. I’m happy to have found him.”

Typical in Ogawa’s universe, the novel disdains any pat resolution, as her intricate web of surreal tyranny tightens around her trapped characters. Yet she does leave us with hope and the inner voices creatively triumph.

The ending implies that this isn’t the end, but a beginning,” Ogawa says.