The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
The disappearances started small. A certain type of candy, let’s say, was one morning gone — not gone from the stores but wiped from existence. Every resident of the unnamed island of The Memory Police woke that morning with no memory of the candy nor even recognition of it. Within a day or two, as the citizenry by instinct destroyed all the disappeared candy, it looked to them like hard, multi-colored pillows you’d never think to eat.
One by one, the world became more empty, and as a reader, I grew more fascinated by this fresh yet somehow timeless tale.
“(W)e talked about all sorts of things — but most often we spoke of our memories. Of my mother and father, my old nurse, the observatory, sculptures, and the distant past when one could still take a boat to other places. But our memories were diminishing day by day, for when something disappeared from the island, all memory of it vanish, too. We divided the last bit of peach and repeated the same stories to each other, allow the fruit to dissolve, ever so slowly, on our tongues.”
Both a philosophical puzzle and a gripping story, The Memory Police is a brilliant modern fable, one of those rare and wonderful works of speculative fiction like Station Eleven, The Underground Railroad or The Handmaid’s Tale that feels simultaneously fantastical and plausible. In this case, imminently plausible because among the island’s inhabitants are people who don’t forget. Their memories of the disappeared candy as well as the hats and roses and harmonicas that came before are intact, and they must watch as those memories are pulled out of their friends and loved ones. Worst, they must pretend to have forgotten, too, or they’ll be caught by the titular Memory Police.
Shudder. Imagine a Gestapo of the mind who can control what you remember. Imagine the raw power of a weapon of mass forgetting. Such conjurings are truly frightening in a world where information is so clearly more powerful than most of us imagined.
“The dark green trucks with the canvas covers appeared more often on the streets. Sometimes they would race by, covers rolled up, sirens blaring, and at other times they would trundle heavily along, covers down. In the gap between the canvas and the bed of the truck, you could catch a glimpse of someone’s shoe or a suitcase or the hem of a coat.”
The protagonist is a novelist whose editor, the man she trusts with her words, cannot forget and must be hidden, again evoking our cultural memories of Anne Frank and the Holocaust. With the help of an old man, a longtime family friend, the novelist must find a way to help her editor while she herself continues to slip away. As the old man says:
“(T)here are more gaps in the island than there used to be. When I was child, the whole place seemed… how can I put this?… a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance.”
With spare but elegant prose, The Memory Police reads like a breeze but carries the emotional punch of a gale. In this novel, Ogawa — who has won every major Japanese literary award and is surely in store for a few international ones — quietly, calmly and viciously explores identity, community, authoritarianism, and of course, the transitory and untrustworthy nature of memory. If you love literary speculative fiction like I do, I guarantee The Memory Police will be a read you do not regret and would go into hiding to not forget.