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The Memory Police

The Memory Police, a novel by Yōko Ogawa, was published in 1994 and then translated by Stephen Snyder for its 2019 release in English. This dreamlike, dystopian story unfolds in an enigmatic cloud of allegory. It's set on an isolated island plagued by a gradual extirpation of memories as well as the objects that conjure them. Roses are among the first to go, then birds and calendars, and the island folk themselves seem to fade in ways too. A few retain their memories and so they're hunted down by the Memory Police and disappeared, the exception being those who can remain in hiding.

The unnamed narrator is an author who processes her community's grim reality through the novels she writes, her characters similarly suffering losses that bring on the loss of the self. She hides her memory-capable editor at home, in a secret cubbyhole of a room accessible only through a trapdoor in the floor and by a makeshift funnel speaker. But the Memory Police, fascist and cold as the snow that covers the island ever more deeply, are out there, searching houses, enforcing the disappearances, removing all who remember what might be forever gone.

I quite liked this one for the unsettling calm that runs through it. Ogawa's sentences are simple and clear, contrasting eerily with the plight and horror conveyed through the imagery in her masterly descriptions. I was a bit frustrated midway through by the allegory. I wanted Ogawa or the narrator to explain why these terrible events were happening and what it all actually meant. But by the book's end the allegory is satisfying in its murk, giving us a fictional but much clearer picture of real-world truths—in particular about the importance of remembering and storytelling.

Yōko Ogawa
Yōko Ogawa


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