Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (Vintage)

“I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first – among all the things that have vanished from the island.”

THE original Japanese version was titled Secret Crystalisation which also marries with the snow falling across the island and perhaps the fate of some of the characters, but the more menacing Memory Police (and an equally graphically intimidating cover) seems more topical, more on message, for our times. Although first published in 1994 this is a very Orwellian, Kafka-esque vision. A dystopian world without memory, without voices, without compassion, a passive acceptance of the unmentionable. A communal Alzheimer’s descends.

Probably Ogawa may also have read Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale which first appeared a decade earlier. This is a standout book of similar calibre. Stephen Snyder’s neat translation earned it a place on the International Booker shortlist.  

“It always snows when the onions’ skins are deep brown, like these, and thin as butterfly wings.”

It feels contemporary, rather worryingly so. There are twin plots. Our heroine is a writer. Her latest novel edges closer and closer to her own main story.  You might not say it is totally believable but it is not unbelievable either.

What gets vanished? It starts with rose petals, ribbons, and hats and later calendars, domestic ideological trinkets but also more vital things like birds. All this is enforced by the smartly overcoated, fur collared, heavy booted, inscrutable interlocutors of the title who could have marched out of Peking or Red Square or for that matter the National Guard. The common vocabulary is being shaved away. Memory is not allowed. Was this a first prediction of fake news? The process has begun before we have arrived, our narrator is anonymous, her parents disappeared, her friend is the Old Man, her editor is R. Names might be dangerous.

But even our heroine is succumbing to the general malaise, the acceptance, the idea that the fading memories are for the best.   In her novel the heroine is mute. She communicates by writing and typing. She is in the sway of her typewriting teacher. She frets:

“Does he gently move her finger to the correct spot, as he used to do for me?” she wonders. We have a double life within a double life.

Both heroines are incarcerated, held by invisible forces, their freewill removed, but perhaps that may equally be true of their brusque inquisitors. They have a vague sense of a need to fight back. Ogawa nurses them nervelessly through to the bizarre, fateful but faithful climax.


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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