The Memory Police – By Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police is an interesting book. After reading it through, I think it can be summed up in one word – mournful. 

This is a book about loss. It’s a dystopian novel on a nameless island, at an indeterminate time. The world building and setting is intentionally vague.There is a dreamlike and haunting quality to it where nothing is firmly set and things could shift at the slightest touch.

I was drawn to this book by comparisons that I’d read online that likened the book to a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and a Haruki Murakami novel. I love dystopian novels, 1984, and adore Murakami so that comparison sent this to the top of my to read list. Given that this was a common contrast made by those who read the book I had pretty high expectations going in. Having finished it now, I’d agree that it does match this comparison, but not unilaterally – there are some concessions to be made. 

I think where Ogawa’s book begins to share traits with Murakami’s style is in the strangeness of the book. As the plot evolves there are moments that brought to mind Murakami stories where things diverge from the beautiful mundanity of his primary worlds and begin to descend into the surreal and strange. The comparisons to Murakami are more apt in that regard, as The Memory Police felt more firmly rooted in the strange than the mundane. 

For all of its light and vague qualities however, the dystopian aspects are quietly horrifying – this is a harrowing book and the haunting nature of it brings with it a hopelessness that I wasn’t expecting. Hopelessness, horror and harrowing events are part and parcel for a dystopian novel but they’re usually a sledgehammer – there is a message, a cautionary tale, and it is hammered home with brutality. The Memory Police is different. It’s a poisoned needle on a silk pillow. There is a real delicacy to the book that was of profound importance in not only distinguishing it from other dystopian novels, but also to the overall success of the story. 

To elaborate on that point, the plot surrounds memory (obviously), the presence of it but also the absence of it. The titular Memory Police are a shadowy organisation that appear to rule all inhabitants of the ‘Island’ and are responsible for overseeing the people living there, but more significantly, they’re the ones who enforce the disappearances. Nothing can be taken for granted in this world because the memory of something could simply disappear one day, taking with it all concern or recollection of it. When something that has been forgotten is not willingly surrendered and disposed of by the residents, they will step in to ensure that it is removed. Once something has been forgotten it simply ceases to register to the people living there, even if it rests in their hands. 

The real mystery of the book is the nature of memory and the purpose or design behind the progressive selection of things that vanish from memory. There is no way for most to know how much they’ve lost, just as they fail to recall an object, concept or its purpose once it is gone. The delirium in these moments deepens the dreamlike quality. There is a unique and keen hopelessness when one cannot comprehend what has been lost, while continuing to lose things. They are helpless to stop it. It’s a terrifying prospect and an insidious exercise in control. These voids leave a deep emptiness for the reader. You’re left to mourn the losses of the people, even as they forget and move on. Yoko Ogawa toys with the notion of how much one can lose while still remaining yourself – how would you even know that you’ve changed.

Most of what we are is memory. The totality of ones life and experience is deeply rooted in memory, in your own and that of others. It is vital to our sense of self.The concepts that Yoko Ogawa plays with here are truly haunting. There is a very good reason why dystopian novels often explore concepts like identity, individualism, freedom, and self determination. The loss of that sort of autonomy, the loss of what is irreducibly and uniquely you, is intolerable. The fact that this book is as beautiful and sad as it is, is a testament to that. 

It is a light and dreamlike read that is equally haunting, vague, and strange. If you enjoyed books like Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, you will definitely enjoy this. I highly recommend it, but make sure you have something cheery to read as a follow up – you’ll probably need it. 

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