Pandemic Picks – The Memory Police
translated by Stephen Snyder, Harvill Secker, 2019
Review by Rita Horanyi, 2020 Festival Manager
Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has already been featured on a few quarantine book lists as readers find resonances with our sequestered times in this dystopian fable. The story takes places on an island where everyday objects disappear one by one, taking most people’s memories of the items with them as they vanish.
The small percentage of the population who do retain their memories are rounded up by the Memory Police, the mysterious authority in control on the island. The narrator of the tale is a novelist whose writing explores the experience of losing something essential. Fearing her editor will also be taken away, she helps him avoid this fate by hiding him in a secret room in her house.
While the narrator’s experience of the world is truncated due to her losses of memory, her editor, known only as R., gives up the outside world in order to hold onto his more detailed inner universe. It it this experience of loss and confinement will no doubt resonate most strongly with those of us who have had to undergo quarantine or self-isolation. However, the novel overall forms a more complex and enigmatic allegory that explores ideas of surveillance, control and resistance, as well as loss, ageing, memory and art. The books asks: how much can we lose before our sense of self and humanity evaporates?
For me, the disappearances in the book also spoke strongly to another great crisis of our time—climate change. With news coverage saturated with updates on COVID-19, it’s easy to overlook the fact that, even before last summer’s devastating fires destroyed over one billion animals and large swathes of their habitats, some scientists were debating whether we might be on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction.We don’t even know the names of most of the species that are disappearing around us at an alarming rate, but what we should know is that we are living in a more impoverished world because of it.
However, you choose to interpret this haunting and timeless tale, The Memory Police speaks to our present age on multiple levels. It’s easy to see why this novel, by one of Japan’s most awarded writers, has been shortlisted for both The 2020 International Booker Prize and the 2019 National Book Awards (Translated Literature).