“The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder (trans) (Harvill Secker, August 2019; Pantheon, August 2019) The Memory Police, Yoko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder (trans) (Harvill Secker, August 2019; Pantheon, August 2019)

Japanese literature isn’t always neatly accommodated by the buckets often set out to categorize novels. Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, about an island where entire classes of things, and the memories that go with them, just disappear, a state of affairs enforced by a malevolent and menacing special police force, could be placed in several different buckets, or none at all.

That the novel, and the secret room at its center, owes its genesis to the story of Anne Frank would be obvious even if the author hadn’t said so. But if this is allegory, it isn’t of the Nazis and Holocaust, despite the scenes of rounding people up that echo those of Second World War. And while the Soviet Union, for example, tried to remove—sometimes with some success—certain ideas and objects, and persecuted those who refused to let go, Ogawa’s Memory Police have no apparent political objective: the forgetting itself, whether or birds or hats or calendars, is the point of the exercise. So if this is a treatise against authoritarianism generally, it is an authoritarianism of a peculiarly pointless kind.

Such resistance as exists is neither political nor even particularly philosophical, but rather genetic. Most people on the island just forget, and rather quickly—when the roses are tossed into the river, they are gone as if they never existed; when hats are forgotten, the hatmaker switches to umbrellas. Those that do remember are those that can’t forget. Here the novel enters into science fiction, but one of the Kurt Vonnegut variety, set in the present (or here, the recent past) where the “science” isn’t particularly scientific.

The novel is surreally dystopian, except that while people grumble about the sinking quality of life, they do not expressly regret the loss of things they have forgotten. The result is malaise rather than unhappiness or oppression; happiness, continues to sought and is often found. The jacket copy says the novel is “Orwellian”, but there is no double-speak here, no attempt by an overweening State for absolute control, no obvious attempt at political manipulation.


Ogawa does require of the reader a certain suspension of logic if not belief. Exactly how this small cut-off island society functions economically is unclear; to remark on this isn’t pedantry, because markets, businesses and occupations feature prominently in the narrative. The unnamed protagonist is herself an author with an editor and publisher; this would hardly seem to be viable at the best of times, but it becomes increasingly fantastical when the disappearances force the economy into reliance on increasingly impoverished market gardens and individual artisans. Then, of course, the narrator herself writes about things that she has already forgotten.

So, what is The Memory Police about? It is certainly about the close tie between memories and humanity and about how wispy memory can be when the physical objects that back it are removed and eliminated. First published in 1994, The Memory Police is in fact an “old” novel; Ogawa seems to have been on to something. Memories today are stored in “the cloud” and are thus much more ephemeral than when they were physically manifested on paper, film and canvas. When objects are never saved but 3D-printed on demand, they can also be deleted from existence. The quarter-century since the novel was first published has seen the development of memory police that patrol cyberspace, removing the items that are determined to be objectionable.

Yet it strikes me that among other things The Memory Police is, despite its title, an allegory on aging and mortality. As we age, we lose, bit by bit, facility and facilities that when younger were once deemed integral to living. And, as often as not, like the people on Ogawa’s island, we adjust, change our lifestyle, find satisfaction in the new situation and sometimes wonder why it all seemed so important.

Ogawa does follow Orwell in the clarity of her prose—at least in Stephen Snyder’s stylish translation—and the ability to create familiar and recognizable characters in a distorted reality: teachers who wish to assign a thought-provoking novel that will engender wide-ranging classroom discussion for hours, but wish for something closer to the present-day than, say, 1984, could do far worse than The Memory Police.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.