(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
‘Memory Police’ (1994)
a novel by Yoko Ogawa
Long listed for 2020 International booker
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 for him to hide his memories.
We are, partially, what we remember. Most of us have a tendency to reduce the idea of identity to one or a few objects – nationality, religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, memories, harmonies, etc. Yet among several factors that influence our idea of our own identity, our memories are definitely included. So a loss or change of personality could make a wonderful theme for fiction. ‘Memory Police’ doesn’t explore this theme.
The title might suggest a political dystopia. Police and armies are just tools in hands of powerful; and in this book, we never find out who these powerful ones are, leave alone the reasons behind the way memory police are used to make things disappear. There is simply no explanation for why memory police make things forgotten or how it does it.
Not only the book fails in omisision; it also fails to hold on to logic. It is technically difficult to write a novel when the narrator is progressively forgetting about things. Yet, even if we make allowance for that; the book fails to hold on to its inner logic.
At one point, a memory police officer tells our protagonist since calendars are forgotten, she should not hold on to diaries with dates on it (or something similar). Now if the narrator forgot all about the calendar as she is supposed to; you could expect her to ask ‘what calendar? What dates?’ but she does no such thing. That’s just one example. The narrator is a novelist. Now since, for example, flowers are forgotten, you would argue that any book mentioning them should be burned too but only flowers are burned and books that might have mentioned them are left alone.
Then body organs are supposed to be forgotten. Now while objects forgotten earlier had to be burned, there is no such action for body organs. There is also a very minimal explanation as to how life went on when people could no longer remember their organs.
Anyway, the question then is what is novel about? My theory is that it is about changes that take place in a hetro-romantic relationship – with women increasingly developing a fear that they have less to offer and that their partner will leave them. Initially, narrator, a woman is doing a favor to R by taking him in but, later, she finds herself increasingly becoming less and less of herself – which is how women, often socially conditioned to define themselves excessively by their looks might feel; added to it is the fear of being abandoned by their partner. In the book it happens for narrator first when she can no longer write – her relationship with R being entirely based on a novelist-critic one; and then, of course, she loses the use of her limbs.
The narrator’s novel forms the second novel within this one and seems to be a reflection on a similar theme – that novel is about a typewriter who slowly becomes less and less of herself as her bf steals her voice (don’t talk logic here) and is afterward replaced. R is shown in a comparatively better light and the narrator herself decides to ask him to abandon her.
If that was the theme, a smaller more focused novel could have done more justice to it IMO. That might be the central theme though I really have no idea. The prose was uneven too – too understated at times when it needed to pull book through illogical points (particularly toward the end) while very eloquent at other times about things like actions of dogs and weather.
Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan