‘What matters is the story’ [book review]

A review of The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

So eager was I to finally read Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police in Stephen Snyder’s International Booker-shortlisted translation that I cast aside all other reading plans at the start of this year and practically devoured the book, only to find myself sitting on this review for several weeks because somehow I didn’t quite know what to write. I can say with some confidence that it’s a book I loved, but at the same time The Memory Police has occupied me more than expected, haunting my thoughts – and indeed my other reading – ever since I put it down.

Cover image The Memory Police

Set on a remote island off the coast of Japan, Ogawa’s novel, which was originally published in 1994 but remains frighteningly relevant today, is set in a dystopian future in which objects begin disappearing from everyday life, cast out by some unseen higher power whose rule is enforced by the ominous Memory Police. The disappearances of these objects – hats, music boxes, roses – come about when the residents of the island wake up to find their memories of an object’s use fading, an event usually followed by a mass destruction of the object itself. It is not, then, so much memories being totally wiped (our narrators can still discuss the disappearances with some clarity) as that the meaning inherent in the object ceases to exist. If people can no longer remember what it is for, what right does it have to be a part of their lives?

While our narrator, a novelist, is going through the surprisingly effortless process of having her world gradually shrink in richness and meaning, a few people seem immune to the curse and are consequently rounded up by the military Memory Police. Among them is R, our narrator’s editor, whom she decides to hide in a secret room in her house with the help of an elderly friend. The novel centres on this attempt at concealment and the relationships that develop between the three, and describes what happens as the disappearances become more problematic, including novels and, eventually, limbs. At this point considerable suspension of disbelief is required, and to me the ending – though in its own way logical – did feel as though the metaphor had been extended perhaps a little too far, though at the same time Ogawa guides us into the story so gently that it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to keep up with its alarming progression.

‘“What matters is the story hidden deep in the words,”’ R tells our narrator as he tries to encourage her to continue writing despite the disappearance of novels – a key if ever there was one to Ogawa’s own writing. Because The Memory Police, it would seem, is not really about individual objects, nor is it trying to predict the future or provide a portrait of human relationships in times of crisis (despite their importance as a framework for the book). Instead, it reads like a warning, a thinly veiled intimation that all too often humans take the easy way out, sitting back and doing as we’re told even if that means having our very lives robbed of their meaning. It is an act of resistance against authoritarian regimes, and also a rallying cry for the role of literature and culture – all those perhaps ‘useless’ things that still, like roses, give our lives beauty and meaning. It is about looking deeper than the surface of things, about how a sentence like ‘our hearts got thinner’ might just be the worst fate possible for humanity.

The Memory Police is a novel of deep ideas that is firmly rooted in history – it is no accident, surely, that the mass burning of novels by the islanders is strongly reminiscent of the Nazi book burnings and, too, followed by a figurative burning of men – but it retains a chilling bearing on today, in the future it was perhaps written for. At the same time, I found it peculiarly relaxing to read – something that comes, I think, from Ogawa’s beautifully poetic imagery and focus on details, not to mention the smooth, almost hypnotic language of Snyder’s translation. ‘Horrible things were about to happen, but somehow we felt increasingly calm,’ our narrator states at one point, a feeling I had throughout almost the entire book. Somehow, I enjoyed being transported to that isolated island, whose geography and inhabitants are brought vividly to life; somehow I enjoyed spending time in the company of our considered, composed narrator, who has – like many Japanese-language narrators I’ve read – an eye for the telling minutiae of life. Like most of its characters, there is ‘a certain gentle modesty’ to this book, an air of refined dreaming, which contrasts violently and effectively with the deeply disturbing plotline.

Ogawa seems to be an author hyper-aware of her own craft, giving us a story within her story – the novel our narrator is working on, which involves a woman locked by a man in a tower where she loses first her voice and then gradually ownership of her body – and leaves us perhaps another small clue as to her thinking in a description of the Memory Police at work: ‘There was no doubt that they were creating chaos, but they went about it in such a precise manner that they gave an impression of careful order’. Though undoubtedly a fantastical novel, there is also a great deal of realism at work in The Memory Police, making it much simpler for the reader to fall into the story and become entirely swept away. Equally, despite her reserve, it is easy to become invested in the narrator, whose burgeoning relationship with R provides at least faint hope and some relief from the otherwise destructive nature of the narrative.

A worthy contender for last year’s International Booker and a book that will long occupy a special place in my personal library, The Memory Police demands reader engagement but in turn has a lot to teach us. Multiple readings are possible when it comes to this complex, creative novel – whatever you choose to view it as, however far you decide to take your belief – so that it can have a deeply personal resonance with just about anyone who reads it. A wholly universal story and a strong, rousing defence of literature’s significance and power, Yoko Ogawa’s masterful writing declines to give us redemption, but offers instead the fragile sense that ‘even when the balance begins to collapse, something remains’. If – and only if – we are willing and able to recognise it.

9 thoughts on “‘What matters is the story’ [book review]

  1. I love your review. I felt the same way about the limbs. Given the way the story within the story ends, was there a need to parallel it in the ‘real’ world? I guess she needed to bring it an ending. She is a wonderful writer though, I’ve enjoyed the four books I’ve read by her a lot.

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  2. What a wonderful thoughtful review. I’m close to finishing this book. When I started it I was so sceptical of the premise that things were disappearing along with the memory of them because it was clear that the narrator did remember some things (she keeps mentioning the ferries for example and the birds). But your interpretation that it’s the significance or meaning of the objects that disappears rather than the memory makes a lot of sense.

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    1. Thank you, I’m really pleased to hear that. I did find it a bit hard to get my head round, but this was the only way the story could make sense to me at least. I’ll be very interested to hear what you make of the ending in particular, and your thoughts on the book overall. It’s definitely one of the more unusual and haunting stories I’ve read recently.


  3. Brilliant review! I read The Memory Police about a year ago now, and though I didn’t always like the experience of reading it (I felt that some details went too far, some not far enough) it’s been a haunting read (in a good way) whose ideas have really stuck with me even as other books from the same time have faded from my memory. I think what really appeals most about this one (for me at least) is the ambiguity- it’s easy to change your mind about its meaning day to day, and it’s up to the reader how much or which parts of the book are to be seen as parallels/predictions to reality. It’s a very open book, which is impressive for something with this much plot. I’m very glad to see you enjoyed the read!

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  4. This sounds like such an interesting (and quietly sinister!) book. I’d not heard of it before but I’m very drawn to the unusual concept. The tone that you described (‘horrible things were about to happen but we felt calm’ etc.) made me think a little bit of a book I really enjoyed: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. In that book I felt like there were always strange (and increasingly frightening) things happening just off to the side, but yet it was a really gentle and pleasant reading experience most of the time. I’m not usually such a big fan of dystopian novels, but this seems like something I might pick up! Thanks for your thoughtful and beautiful written review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Carly. It’s several years since I read Never Let Me Go but the comparison is great – this one doesn’t turn on a secret, but they definitely share the same sinister atmosphere lurking beneath a calm tone that is somewhat at odds with the plot. If you enjoyed that, I’d definitely recommend you give this one a try and would love to hear your interpretation of it!

      Liked by 1 person

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