When Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Memory Police first came out in Japan, there was barely any internet in the country. It was 1994, and public networks had just come online the year before; less than 2 percent of the country’s population had email addresses. A short article published in Fortune around that time noted that many companies feared the coming upheaval of a digital age. “Some Japanese managers have a mentality like North Korea,” said an internet researcher. “They think of information only as a tool or weapon to control their subordinates.”
Last week, 25 years after its original publication, The Memory Police was released in English. The book’s central conceit—an island where concepts intermittently disappear from society’s collective understanding—has proved irresistible to American critics, who hail the novel’s relevance in a time of pervasive doublespeak and gaslighting. Handy political parallels are just the beginning of its charms, though; the book’s most urgent allegory has little to do with propaganda. The world The Memory Police re-emerges into demands an entirely new reading, one where information isn’t distorted. It’s forgotten.
Little in The Memory Police gets a name. The narrator, a novelist living in a village on the island, doesn’t; nor does her closest confidant, an old man who was a friend of her family. Her parents, a sculptor and an ornithologist, are both dead. Her editor is known only as R., and she’s hard at work on her latest novel, the tale of a newly mute woman who has taken up with her typing teacher. Meanwhile, things on the island keep losing their names as well. Birds are the first the narrator details:
> Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird”—everything.
A disappearance begins internally, experienced en masse, but with each one—roses, photographs, and fruit follow—long-coated, stone-faced Memory Police sweep through the village, ensuring that all traces of the disappeared concept or object is gone for good. What exactly causes disappearances is never addressed; instead, the mystery lies in how far they’ll go, and what role the Memory Police play. Because disappearance isn’t confined to concepts: The Memory Police also root out and cart away any villagers who don’t forget.
The narrator’s mother was one of those people—and so, she learns, is her editor. She and the old family friend join forces to save R. before the Memory Police can take him, secreting him in a hidden room between the first and second floors of her house. (It was Ogawa’s fascination with Anne Frank that inspired the novel.) When her friend gets taken in for questioning, and ever dearer things begin to vanish, the novel shifts subtly from whatdunit to howcouldit, Ogawa’s spare and affecting prose leaving ample room for the dread to creep in.
It’s difficult not to see The Memory Police as a comment on creeping authoritarianism. So too is it a lovely, if bleak, meditation on faith and creativity—or faith in creativity—in a world that disavows both. But if you can read it in 2019 without thinking, often and acutely, “Holy shit, this is about the internet,” then you’re made of sterner (and more blissful) stuff than I.
Our memories are disappearing, though there’s no Memory Police making sure they stay gone. Instead, there’s the ceaseless churn of internet eddying past us, tugging our focus into undertow. The wake-me-when-it’s-over fatigue brought on by onslaught of the news cycle. The numb-nesia of continued hypocrisy. A memeosphere within which any given idea has a half-life of zeptoseconds. Nearly a billion hours’ worth of livestreaming viewed on Twitch in July alone. Five hundred hours of content being uploaded to YouTube every minute. Peak TV and TikTok and story universes that evolve on three platforms at once.
The very idea of collective experience has been vaporized; not only is it impossible that we all see or hear or read the same thing, but when we do we can’t even agree on what that thing even is. (Hey, remember The Dress? Four and a half years ago. Or was it 70? Or was it last week? It was probably last week.)
The newfound magic of The Memory Police is the way it gives form to that near-panicked acceleration. “If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost,” the narrator says to the old man early on, “the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes, and when it’s completely hollowed out, we’ll all disappear without a trace.” For her oblivion is made of nothing; for us it’s made of everything.
“Orwellian” is a word you’ll see a lot in reviews of The Memory Police. It’s not not fitting, but it’s also an incomplete descriptor. So is “Kafkaesque.” Both of those rest on external forces, on amnesia administered from without. Only after the villagers sense a disappearance do the Memory Police come in to scrub away the evidence; the forgetting begins with us. As life on the island gets ever more macabre, and the narrator’s early fears start to come true, R. remains steadfast. As long as he can see and feel the music boxes and photographs—as long as he can see and feel her—they haven’t gone anywhere.
Yet they have, swept into the past by anticipation of what’s next, and that’s where the world of The Memory Police truly feels like a portrait of today. To await the future is to disappear the present—which only accelerates the speed with which now turns to then, and then turns to nothing.
‘The Trial’ by Franz Kafka
A man is arrested—for what? He doesn’t know, and neither do you. Yet the wheels of bureaucracy grind ever onward. The granddaddy of this-can’t-possibly-be-happening feel-bad fiction.
‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang
A dizzying triptych about a woman who stops eating meat … because she wants to become a plant. Less magic and more realism than The Memory Police, but a similarly spare English translation (from the Korean) that will stay with you long after you finish.
‘The Wife’ by Meg Wolitzer
A book about a novelist—but one whose chaos comes from within, as seen by one who bears its brunt. Indispensable even if you’ve seen Glenn Close’s Oscar-nominated performance in the 2018 film adaptation (and maybe even more so).
‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ by Haruki Murakami
The Memory Palace is the fifth of Ogawa’s works to be translated into English; her countryman Murakami is more widely available. Start with this novel, which came out in Japan the same year as The Memory Police.
‘The Cabin at the End of the World’ by Paul Tremblay
Four strangers show up at a couple’s door to announce that they’re there to save the world—but they’ve all got weapons, and their story doesn’t quite make sense. The best kind of horror novel: The only bogeymen to be found are the ones inside us all.
Next Month …
Senior writer Nitasha Tiku will review Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, out September 3.
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