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 been featured on quite 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 retain their memories find themselves rounded up by the Memory Police, the mysterious authority in control on the island. Fearing her editor will be one of those taken away, the narrator of the tale (a novelist whose writing explores the experience of losing something essential) 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 loss of memory, her editor—known only as R.—must give up the outside world in order to hold onto his richer inner universe. It is this experience of loss and confinement will no doubt resonate most strongly with those who have had to undergo quarantine or self-isolation. However, the novel forms a far 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 currently saturated with updates on COVID-19, it’s easy to overlook the fact that—even before last summer’s fires destroyed around one billion animals and large swathes of their habitat—some scientists were debating whether we might be on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction. Most of us don’t even know the names of the species that are disappearing around us at an alarming rate, but some of us are dimly aware 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. Conveyed in sparse but eloquent prose, it’s easy to see why this novel, by one of Japan’s most awarded writers, has been so lauded.