The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, trans. by Stephen Snyder (Pantheon 2019)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
“’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…” (3)
In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” author Kate Bernheimer defines the fairy tale for a contemporary audience – what fairy tales are made of, what doors they can open.
“With their flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic, fairy tales hold a key to the door fiercely locked between so-called realism and nonrealism, convention and experimental-ism, psychology and abstraction. A key for those who see these as binaries, that is.”
Yoko Ogawa’s latest novel The Memory Police, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, holds some of these same keys. The book is often described by critics as a fable – a story of surveillance, told with the flatness, the “normalized magic” of a book for children. “Long ago…,” we begin; or: once upon a time. At the same time, The Memory Police is a book interested in binaries – particularly, the space between remembering and forgetting, and what it means to fall between those poles in a society where the wrong kind of memory is treason.
The premise of the novel is relatively simple. A novelist, our narrator, lives on an island where objects are frequently disappeared. When an object is removed from memory, a hole forms in the hearts and minds of the people on the island – the objects are destroyed, systematically (often thrown in the river), and soon even their names are lost. The Memory Police monitor this forgetting; conflicts arise for some, for whom the disappeared objects remain precious. They become the targets of police raids.
I am particularly interested in understanding this book through the lens of what Bernheimer calls flatness; a lack of emotional or psychological depth within the characters in the story. In her words:
“Fairy-tale characters are silhouettes, mentioned simply because they are there. They are not given many emotions—perhaps one, such as happy or sad—and they are not in psychological conflict… This absence of depth, this flatness, violates a technical rule writers are often taught in beginning writing classes: that a character’s psychological depth is crucial to a story.”
I am interested in flatness because, as Bernheimer says, it breaks the cardinal rules of what we believe writing should be, and because Ogawa manages to master this flatness while offering a rich, emotional experience, which emulates the experience of giving language to death from the perspective of the dying. Flatness is, in fact, a key element to this narrative – Ogawa’s characters are flat because they have lost huge swaths of their reality, of themselves. They are hollowed out, systematically, by an oppressive, faceless bureaucracy with a mission we never entirely understand, beyond a desire for control. Their flatness is both stylistically interesting and devastating – it is a consequence of trauma, of censorship.
The process of this hollowing is the subject of the novel itself. Roses are disappeared early on in the book, and the narrator reflects:
“Already on the second day, people who had raised roses in their gardens came to the river to lay their petals to rest… At the base of the bridge next to my laundry platform stood an elegantly dressed woman. ‘What lovely roses,’ I told her. Anything I had ever felt about these flowers had already vanished from my heart, but she was plucking the petals from her own blooms with such tenderness that I’d wanted to say something…” (50).
What happens when we, as people, as characters, are so hollowed by the world around us that each gesture we make has a flatness? Those who love us push us toward memory, toward renewal, wholeness, but what we have lost is too great a force. In The Memory Police, Ogawa asks what makes us ourselves, what makes us whole. She asks, also, what we lose each time one small facet of our reality is taken from us from those in power – objects which seem trivial, but in fact contain some vital, microscopic part of ourselves.
In a politically oppressive world, in a world rocked by climate disaster, there is a pressing grief, a grief so ever-present we forget sometimes that it is not common to lose so much. In Ogawa’s novel, we are reminded of the weight of each of these small losses.
As our world is hollowed out by rising global temperatures and changing ecosystems, by laws which restrict bodies, faiths, voices, movements, Ogawa shows us the impact of complacency. She shows us, also, the pains of rebellion; how difficult, how impossible it can be to treasure smallness in the wake of physical and emotional danger, insecurity, and power. When we have already lost so much, how do we keep moving toward memory? How do we keep moving back toward a more whole version of ourselves?
In this fable about oppression which can be read as a lens, also, for death, for mental illness, for grief, for climate change, Ogawa reminds us that in the light of this kind of loss, there is no clear or easy path. There is only the path we choose to take.