‘The Memory Police’ reminds us to appreciate life’s small details in uncertain times

With 2020 seeming like a dystopian novel come to life, it’s only natural to start seeing allusions to our current situation in every dystopian novel, film and TV show we consume as this turbulent year comes crashing to an end. And although Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Japanese title: Hisoyaka na Kesshō or “Secret Crystallization”) was first published in 1994, it feels as relevant as ever reading it today in its English translation, finally released in paperback form in the UK this year (and shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker prize).

Our unnamed protagonist is a writer living on an island where things – objects, foods, even body parts – suddenly ‘disappear’. A disappeared thing not only ceases to exist in its physical form, but is also erased from the memories of the island’s residents. The titular Memory Police are there to enforce the disappearances and round up anyone who has retained the ability to remember (a small percentage of citizens, including the writer’s mother) who, presumably, cease to exist themselves once they have been captured and taken.

Obviously there are Kafkaesque and Orwellian parallels to be drawn with the story’s totalitarian setting, but The Memory Police sets itself apart by focusing on the existentialist repercussions of the disappearances, while keeping the pacing dreamy and loose-flowing. This isn’t a novel with a typical ‘forward momentum’; plot-points are calmly listed by the protagonist as if she is writing them down in a diary, even categorized in the text as ‘major’ or ‘minor’ depending on their seriousness. Ogawa is smart to retain a sense of mystery surrounding the Memory Police and their ‘end goal’ (we see briefly inside the organisation’s headquarters but it is barely one of the novel’s main events); the story, after all, is not really about them, but rather the significance of memories and importance of holding on to life’s small details.

Ogawa is a master at rendering these small details through her gorgeously meditative descriptions of objects, senses, time and place. With these descriptions, she manages to place us directly on the island to experience its ever-shifting landscape and the sense of growing uncertainty in the air. It’s a shame that the novel’s dialogue and character development doesn’t quite match up to its descriptive strength; everyone tends to speak in the same voice and the narration often has an emotionless tone which can be difficult to connect with. A love affair between two characters – which should really be the heart of the novel – feels flat and a little unsure of itself, especially in its rather abrupt ending. And by far the weakest aspect of the story takes the form of excerpts from a novel being written by the protagonist as she tries to hold on to her identity as a writer; it’s hard to care about this slightly cheesy story-within-a-story, perhaps because the pull of the main story is so strong and its setup so compelling.

Many of us have had to come to terms with a sudden shift in reality in 2020, as the lives we once took for granted disappeared in a frenzy of desperation and empty supermarket shelves back in March. Now, as we await weekly government rulings informing us how to go about our day-to-day lives, the world of The Memory Police doesn’t seem so far away.

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