- "No one can erase the stories":A Review of Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police
Halfway through Yoko Ogawa's novel The Memory Police, books are made to disappear from an unnamed island off an unnamed shore. The unnamed narrator, herself a writer, describes—with the numbing resignation that comes from having lived too long with uncertainty and loss to feel particularly perturbed—how the unnamed residents of the island gather, without much ado, in small groups and light bonfires to burn the books which to them will soon signify nothing more than a bundle of pages. As the islanders stare blankly at the fires lit up against the grey sky, the narrator notices a screaming young woman trying to put out the fires. Even as the woman is seized and arrested by the Memory Police—blank-faced uniformed men whose duty is to ensure that disappeared objects remain disappeared—she shouts, "No one can erase the stories!"1 Re-reading The Memory Police at a time when countless funeral pyres burn unnamed corpses across India, even as the country cowers under the relentless onslaught of Covid-19—fuelled by the complacency and arrogance of those in power—I marvel once again at the persistence of memories woven into stories that linger.
While the novel was originally published in Japanese in 1994, it was only in 2019 that it was translated into English by Stephen Snyder. Ogawa's story takes place in an unidentifiable island where seemingly random objects—perfumes, ribbons, hats, birds, books, bodies—are mysteriously made to vanish. Though the material existence of the disappeared object continues, all memories, emotions, and feelings which the islanders associate with that object are totally effaced. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator—herself a novelist—reminisces about her childhood, recalling how her mother explained to her the uncanny process of the disappearances: "It doesn't hurt, and you won't even be particularly sad. One morning you'll simply wake up and it will be over, before you've even realised. […] You'll feel that something has changed. […] And you'll realise that you've lost something."2 The disappearances are never foreshadowed, never explained, and the inhabitants of the island have almost nonchalantly accepted them as an inevitable, inescapable aspect of their lives. They gather in small groups to console each other [End Page 12] and dispose of the disappearing object (if it is a physical object) but "no one makes a fuss," and "soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing had happened, and no one can recall what it was that disappeared."3 Should they fail to do so, the Memory Police will seize and incarcerate the detractors.
A nuanced commentary on the fragility and malleability of the memories that constitute us, Ogawa's novel may be read as an allegory for the inexorable erosion of time upon the sedimented layers of identity. With dreamlike poise, subtlety, and muted elegance—interspersed and illumined with tender moments of beauty—Ogawa creates a fable of our effervescent lives, bounded by mortality and chance. Written in Japan towards the end of the last century—a world so markedly different from our hyper-connected, oversaturated times—Ogawa's story of collective amnesia betrays a sympathetic critique of post-World War II Japan's determination to obliviate its traumatic history of military rule, the humiliation of defeat in the war, and the horrors of the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As John W. Dower points out in his book on post-war Japan, "victims of the bombings—called hibakusha—could not grieve publicly, could not share their experiences through written word."4 This coerced prohibition of mourning anticipates the enforced disappearances in Ogawa's novel where the Memory Police ensure that "there are no delays in the process of forgetting, and that useless memories disappear quickly and easily."5 They use the metaphor of a diseased body to explain why such a forgetting is necessary: "If your big toe becomes infected with gangrene, you cut it off as soon as you can. If you do nothing, you end up losing the whole leg...