There’s an old proverb that gets quoted a lot, in a lot of different situations. But, as I read Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (beautifully translated by Stephen Snyder), I constantly thought of the frog in the pot of boiling water. This book, narrated by an unnamed novelist, takes place on an equally unnamed island ruled by the eponymous police, who are slowly disappearing things and making sure they are forgotten. The people on the island adapt to their losses. The only ones who buck against the disappearances are the ones whose memories don’t fade away. Will the disappearances ever end?
The protagonist has been making accommodations all her life. She got used to the loss of her parents. She misses them, but she’s used to having them gone. She’s also got used to the loss of hats, perfume, emeralds, music boxes, and so much more. (The disappearances are never explained.) As soon as something disappears, the word loses all meaning and the islanders can’t even recall what the thing looked like. Slowly, they get by on less and less. Not even when people start to disappear, too. Our protagonist starts to resist when she figures out that her editor might be one of the next to be taken by the Memory Police. She works with an old friend to create a hiding place for him. After all, he’s the only person who understands her novel.
In other hands, I could have predicted exactly where this book was going. If an American had written The Memory Police, there would have come a time when the narrator would have gathered a band of plucky oddballs to take down the Memory Police and restore everything that was lost. Ogawa surprised me. The losses continue to mount up. I kept waiting for the protagonist to reach her limit—but that didn’t happen. For readers like me, who were waiting for an American-style uprising, the last third or so of the book were incredibly sad. Once I gave up my expectations, I was able to concentrate on the disintegration of the narrator’s world. I can’t say that I completely understand The Memory Police, but I can say that I appreciate its melancholy beauty.
The Memory Police is the kind of book that, when I finish it, I want to start writing a paper about it. There’s so much to think about: what do we really need and what can we live with out, what is a person when they start to lose parts of themselves, and what is worth fighting for. Above all, though, I was fascinated at how the story and its premise was handled by an author with a completely different worldview from my own. I normally don’t put much credence in author biographies when it comes to explicating fiction, because I don’t think it helps to read books as one-to-one correspondences with their creators’ lives. In this case, however, I think there’s a lot to be said about how writers cater to readers’ expectations, how they can choose not to do so, and the impossibility of pleasing all readers. Personally, I think it’s good for readers to be surprised every now and then. Getting a happily ever after ever time might spoil us.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.