The Memory Police–A Simple but Complex Story

The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa

Published 1994

Translated by Stephen Synder

Published in English 2019

Read July 2021

Ogawa, author of The Professor and the Housekeeper, sets this story in some unidentified isolated island.  The protagonist is a young novelist who has lost both parents and continues to live in her childhood home.  Since before the novelist was born, things have disappeared, apparently on command of the Memory Police, and they continue to disappear.  Perfume, birds, roses, and more.  Most everyone follows the Memory Police’s direction to forget the item and they also help out in making the item disappear–like dig up their rose bushes and throw them away.  Then the island inhabitants actually cease to remember the thing that has disappeared.  Some people, however, like the novelist’s mother, continue to remember.  In fact, her mother also kept some of the disappeared items in a set of small drawers, including a small bottle of perfume. 

Another person that continues to remember is the novelist’s editor.  The Memory Police sometimes round these people up and disappear them—this is what happened to the novelist’s mother.  Wanting to protect her editor, the novelist, with the help of her friend, an old man, builds a hidden room under the floor in her home and convinces him to leave his pregnant wife to live there.  While hidden, he tries to help the novelist and the old man remember things that have disappeared, and to retain memories of things that are disappeared, they don’t succeed at remembering. This reader won’t reveal more of the plot here. 

This is clearly not an American novel.  The protagonist does not fight overtly against the Memory Police.  She doesn’t organize her neighbors to protest the policies the Memory Police enforce.  She is among those who can’t remember the things that are to be forgotten and who seem to accept this as a matter of course.  But she does hide the editor, a very risky proposition, reminiscent of the hiding of Jews during Hilter’s reign.  She also retrieves disappeared items her mother hid in her studio so the editor can see them and help the writer and the old man try to remember them.  After novels are disappeared (and the island inhabitants burn all their books), she does try to continue writing her novel (the story of which is quite disturbing itself) with the encouragement of the editor.    

There is no explanation of why or how the Memory Police are executing their policy of disappearing things.  There is no explanation of how this process started.  There is only the quietly stated story of a single woman, her interactions with her editor and her friend the old man, her rebellious actions, and her considerations of whether remembering things disappeared is a worthy concept or not.  

This simply stated story left this reader wondering what items and concepts have disappeared during her lifetime, why they disappeared, and whether that disappearance matters.  For instance, technology has led to the disappearance of the slide rule, typewriters (which play an interesting role in this story), and portable CD players, to name just a few.  While printed photos haven’t disappeared completely, a vast number of photos remain on the cameras that took them or on computers of one sort or another.  An interesting question for this reader—how many photos will remain for future generations when those cell phones no longer operate.  Similarly, how will histories be written when hard copy documents aren’t available and the media on which they were stored can’t be accessed.  What will biographies be like when written correspondence can’t provide a primary source revealing information about the writer.   Species of animals and plants have been disappearing though out time, and glaciers and shorelines are disappearing now.  Aspects of culture have disappeared—dressing up to go on a plane, conversing around the office water cooler about the TV show everyone watched the previous evening, and even leaving the house to go to work during the pandemic.  How do we even know what is disappearing and what has already disappeared?  Which of these disappearances matter and in what way?  What acts of rebellion are we willing to take to remember them and/or preserve them? 

Once again Ogawa’s simply told story leads to more questions than answers. 

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