Title: The Memory Police (original title:密やかな結晶)
Writer: Yōko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder)
Publishing House: Pantheon
Date of Publication: August 13th 2019 (first published 1994)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Long ago, before you were born, there were many more things here; my mother used to tell me when I was still a child. ‘’Transparent things, fragrant things…fluttery ones, bright ones…wonderful things you can’t possibly imagine. It’s a shame that the people who live here haven’t been able to hold such marvelous things in their hearts and minds, but that’s just the way it is one this island. Things go on disappearing, one by one. It won’t be long now’’, she added. ‘’You’ll see for yourself. Something will disappear from your life.’’
In an unnamed island, time passes quietly carrying the years of the islanders along the way. The years and memories. Literally. Objects we all take for granted have disappeared. Ribbons, bells, precious stones, perfume, flowers, fruit. Objects and notions are being forgotten, along with feelings and thoughts. The elders of the community hide the secrets of the past in their eyes and hearts, unable to share them because the Memory Police are there to enforce the disappearances. Becoming more and more brutal, they persecute the ones who dare to react by preserving tokens of the lost objects or the citizens who are genetically unable to forget. The Memory Police want to create a community where every thought and feeling will have become a thing of the past, lost and forgotten until there’s nothing left, until everyone is soulless.
‘’I wonder how the wind could tell the roses from all the other flowers.’’
This is my first Ogawa novel and it proved to be one of the strangest, most haunting reading experiences. Behind the scenery of a form of a totalitarian regime, Ogawa presents issues that provide ample material for contemplation and discussion. What is the significance of Memory? How does it define the world we know? A ribbon is a ribbon because we know its name, we recognise its use. If we wake up one morning and decide that it is time to discard every ribbon we own, forget its existence and go on living, how will this change affect us? Once we forget every gift of Nature, every object mankind has created since the dawn of time, we will simply cease to exist.
‘’I sometimes wonder what I’d see if I could hold your heart in my hands.’’
Ogawa creates a story/parable of disappearing notions and objects to refer to freedom of thought and speech, demonstrating the strong bond between our feelings and experiences and the way we perceive the world through our senses. We see an object, we smell a perfume, we listen to a melody and thoughts start flooding our mind. Without these stimuli, we are empty vessels. And this is exactly what regimes need. Empty moulds that have lost the ability to think and feel. Let us think of our past. Hitler and Stalin tried to create a ‘’clean sheet’’ out of troubled societies, controlling everything. But Thought and Memory cannot be controlled. Not even by monsters.
Ogawa chooses not to name the country the story is set in. The heroine and the cast of characters remain nameless. Even the editor whom the young woman is trying to protect is simply called ‘’R’’. This choice intensifies the haunting atmosphere and the universality of the themes. The main character is a very sympathetic, tangible woman. Sensitive, brave and determined to keep the spirit and the memory of her parents alive. She is a human being who thinks and feels, experiencing the dilemmas and fears of the one who tries to swim against the current, having lost her mother and father to the Memory Police.
‘’Autumn passed quickly. The crushing of the waves was sharp and cold, and the wind brought the winter clouds from beyond the mountains.’’
In literary terms, this novel is quietly devastating. Haunting and atmospheric, its prose is hypnotic and unassumingly philosophical. The autumnal scenes and the long winter that seems to be unwilling to leave the island create a melancholic setting that makes the looming threat of the Memory Police a little more bearable. The dialogue is poetic and the extracts of the novel written by the main character add another dimension to the plot. Written 15 years ago, this novel has all the characteristics of Japanese Literature and succeeds in creating a Dystopian setting that is effective and terrifying. Most of the contemporary Anglo-Saxon wannabe-Dystopian writers could learn a thing or two by reading Ogawa’s masterpiece. I doubt they will, though…
‘’I make my living now from my writing. So far, I’ve published three novels. The first was about a piano tuner who wanders through music chops and concert halls searching for her lover, a pianist, who has vanished. She relies solely on the sound of his music that lingers in her ears. The second was about a ballerina who lost her right leg in an accident and lives in a greenhouse with her boyfriend, who is a botanist. And the third was about a young woman nursing her younger brother, who suffers from a disease that is destroying his chromosomes. Each one told the story of something that had been disappeared.’’
Many thanks to Pantheon and Edelweiss for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.