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The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa (Books 2020, 2)

Translated by Stephen Snyder. I asked for this for Christmas, because I saw it reviewed in The Guardian and it sounded interesting. And it is, but I had some problems with it.

Let’s look at the blurb:

Hat ribbon, bird, rose.

To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed.

When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

That “[f]or some reason” is where this book doesn’t quite work for me. The setup is fine: a type of item, and the memories, the very idea of that item, disappears. The titular police make sure that all instances of the item — roses, hats, photographs… — are removed. But some people keep their memories and the ideas, and try to keep the things. The Memory Police find them and cart them off.

The protagonist’s mother was taken in that way when the protagonist was small.1

Why is it happening? How is it happening? Who are the Memory Police, and what happens to the people they take? Can they be resisted, and how can the islanders get their memories back? These are the sorts of questions you would expect to have answered, were this a science fiction novel. Are the islanders the victims of some sort of mind-control experiment? Are they in a simulation?

This is not a science fiction novel.

“For some reason”. Don’t read this expecting to find out what the reason is, or to get answers to any of the other questions.

All that said, I enjoyed reading it. The sense of danger, of menace, is palpable, but subtle. It’s about people trying to live their lives under these bizarre conditions. It’s just frustrating thinking about it now, about the unanswered questions.

But maybe I’m reading it wrong. In her essay “SF reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:

A reviewer wanted to make the zombies in Kelly Link’s “Zombie Contingency Plans” (in the collection Magic For Beginners) into metaphors. They’re not. They’re actual zombies. They may also be metaphors, but their metaphorical function is secondary to the fact that they’re actual zombies that want to eat your brains. Science fiction may be literalization of metaphor, it may be open to metaphorical, symbolic and even allegorical readings, but what’s real within the story is real within the story, or there’s no there there. I had this problem with one of the translators of my novel Tooth and Claw—he kept emailing me asking what things represented. I had to keep saying no, the characters really were dragons, and if they represented anything that was secondary to the reality of their dragon nature. He kept on and on, and I kept being polite but in the end I bit his head off—metaphorically, of course.

The essay is largely about how there is a “toolkit” for reading SF — a set of understandings, of tropes — without which some can find the genre difficult to understand. We learn that toolkit, or build it, from early reading of the genre. But she follows the above quote with this:

When I read literary fiction, I take the story as real on the surface first, and worry about metaphors and representation later, if at all. It’s possible that I may not be getting as much as I can from literary fiction by this method, in the same way that the people who want the zombies and dragons to be metaphorical aren’t getting as much as they could.

Maybe that’s what went wrong for me with The Memory Police: Ogawa wrote a metaphorical work — about people trying to live their lives under bizarre conditions, as I wrote above. I read it with the expectation that the bizarre conditions would have an explanation, and they don’t, because they are “only” metaphors.

For, I would have to suppose, a totalitarian state, where the slightest infraction of arcane and obscure laws leads to being carted away by the secret police.

We also get sections of the novel the protagonist is writing. It is about a woman who loses her voice, and communicates using a typewriter. Then the typewriter is taken away from her. It works as a metaphor for the situation the protagonist lives in: a metaphor within a metaphor.

And from the Guardian review that started this:

Why this is happening is unknown; the ideology of totalitarian control and cultural isolation is implied, rather than explicitly outlined, and its intersection with the supernatural strengthens the feeling of allegory.

So maybe I should have been warned. Calling it “supernatural” suggests something more in the magic realism vein. That might be a better way to approach it. Magic needs — or at least, generally gets — less of an explanation.

  1. Note the lack of names, too: the editor is given an initial, R, but the only character given an actual name is a dog. 

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