Published in 1994 and translated by Stephen Snyder, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a quiet allegory and meditation on life as well as a dystopian fable about fascism.
The story is set in an unnamed island where things disappear—birds, perfume, roses. Most disappearances happen overnight. The inhabitants wake up in a form of daze, and they immediately knew that something has disappeared. The Memory Police, the authority figure, ensures anything that might be overlooked vanishes without a trace, raiding people’s home and leaving nothing but destruction on their trail. Soon afterwards, the memory of the disappearances dissolves as if it had never existed at all. And as more and more things disappear, there’s a feeling of unease and mistrust that start to arise as if a thick fog is slowly swallowing the island.
The most interesting aspect of the disappearances is its associative nature. Ogawa’s novel puts an emphasis on how the memory of simple objects shape an individual, and how these objects often evoke a feeling or an emotion. (Bird is freedom; roses are love and passion). Ogawa’s unadorned prose adds to the subtle surrealism and eerie calmness that permeates the story. And what makes The Memory Police compelling is the realisation that Ogawa’s fictionalised world is familiar to us and the objects that disappeared conjure the same feeling and memory to us as Ogawa’s characters. Most strikingly, however, Ogawa’s The Memory Police also echoes fascist regimes in history—it reminds us of those who are willing to strip others of their home, identity, and freedom to satiate their hunger for power.
The book not only explores political themes, but it is also a philosophical exploration on our life and our existence—when one dies, they leave traces behind that we never forget. (Ever smelled a perfume and it suddenly reminds you of someone long gone?) Where the story leads move gradually and quietly, and the ending hits our very core, reminding us the essence of our being.
Ogawa’s The Memory Police is simply excellent. A masterpiece. It’s a multi-faceted story that works as a classic dystopian, political tale as well as a deeply moving human story.