The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is another book that I’m surprised didn’t win the 2020 International Booker Prize. Like the winning book, The Discomfort of Evening, it centers around grief and loss, but in a much less tangible way. The unnamed narrator lives on an island where things are forgotten one at a time. The first half of the book feels like a strange mash-up of 1984 and The Giver set in 1942 Germany. I wanted more information about the mechanics of this world and to understand how the Memory Police were created, etc., but I stopped looking for answers as the story became more and more abstract.
In the opening chapters, the narrator’s mother shows her a variety of forgotten objects—some ribbon, a bottle of perfume, an emerald—and she can hardly comprehend them. She can’t even smell the perfume. While forgotten items immediately lose their meaning to the island’s inhabitants, they must still be physically destroyed. The Memory Police enforce this destruction. In the case of the perfume, everyone gathered and poured the bottles into the river, but her mother kept one because she has all of her memories. In addition to hunting forgotten items, the Memory Police arrest those who can remember.
So many dystopian novels have a protagonist that is uniquely poised to fight the system, but this narrator is quite ordinary. She’s afflicted by the same forgetting that plagues almost everyone. While she defies the Memory Police by hiding a friend in a secret room of her house, she can’t keep her memories. As she watches a bird fly away on the day that birds are forgotten, she thinks:
I tried to hold on to the way it looked in flight or the sound of its chirping or the colors of its feathers, but I knew it was useless. This bird, which should have been intertwined with memories of my father, was already unable to elicit any feeling in me at all. It was nothing more than a simple creature, moving through space as a function of the vertical motion of its wings. (11)
If this book took one of the people who can remember as its protagonist, I don’t think it would have been as affecting. Being inside the narrator’s mind reinforces that her forgetting isn’t caused by any deficiency in her character, or any lack of effort, or from no one trying to save her—it just is. She has long discussions with her hidden friend to understand what it’s like to remember, but no matter how hard they both try, items disappear from her life according to some unknowable schedule. While everyone seems to take the disappearing island in stride, another of her friends comforts her by talking about his long life of losing things:
“It’s true, I know, that there are more gaps in the island than there used to be. When I was a child, the whole place seemed…how can I put this?…a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance. And even when that balance begins to collapse, something remains. Which is why you shouldn’t worry.” (54)
“There’s nothing too terrible about things disappearing—or forgetting about them. And those Memory Police are only after people who aren’t able to forget.” (54)
Even though she doesn’t know what she forgets and the sting fades quickly, it’s the awareness of her forgetting that pulls at the narrator (and at the reader). While there’s tension in the first half of the book due to run-ins with the Memory Police, it’s the narrator’s awareness of her losses that forms the core of the book and a question: What happens when too much is lost? Things disappear all the time and new things are rarely created. The current condition is untenable.
While I loved the ending, I can see where some readers might not. Yes, it bugs me that there’s no resolution about what causes the forgetting. I’m fairly certain it’s supernatural, though, which is a kind of answer. If this book were very different, the narrator might storm the headquarters of the Memory Police and demand answers, but this isn’t that kind of book. The actual ending is surreal and abstract, but it provides closure even without answers. I appreciated the end more when it occurred to me that while tension with the Memory Police may shape the story, the heart of the book is much quieter and more personal.
Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) The only weakness is that it slows down somewhere past the halfway mark. After some extraordinarily tense moments with the Memory Police, the novel swings to quieter moments and long discussions of hearts—either plump with memory, or full of holes. It took me a little while to comprehend the book’s change in tone and let go of the dystopian novel I thought I was reading.
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