The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 and the Booker International Prize 2020

The first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances.
(p. 14)

How ironic that the very next book I pick up after The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree should also be about terror. Force. Loss.

Things disappear, like emeralds and perfume bottles, ferry boats and families. People who are able to still remember are taken away by the Memory Police, never to be seen again. And so, some of them go into hiding.

Though the cold weather had not yet set in, they each wore several layers of shirts, an overcoat each, and mufflers and scarves wrapped around their necks. They held bags and suitcases that were obviously stuffed full. It seemed they had been trying to bring with them as many useful items as they were able to carry. (p. 21)

I am reminded of reading The Diary of a Young Girl, and Anne Frank’s description of wearing as many clothes as they could before they went into hiding. Although The Memory Police is a work of fiction, it closely resembles the power of a government gone wrong to me.

The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. (p. 25)

While it is never quite clear exactly why things disappear from the people, or where it is that these things go, what is made evident is the fear and the loss in their aftermath. One of the patterns that I kept noticing is how Ogawa drew a connection between “memory” and “heart.”

Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them. (p. 109)

Maybe there’s a place out there where people whose hearts aren’t empty can keep on living. (p. 117)

The music continue to play, before the disappearance and after. It plays on faithfully, as long as the key is wound. That’s its role, now and forever. The only thing that’s different is the hearts of those who once heard it. (p. 147)

‘There, behind your heartbeat, have you stored up all my lost memories?’ I thought this to myself, cheek pressed against R.’s chest. (p. 158)

I will be thinking about this novel for a long time, considering the impact of loss on our lives; the impact of loss on our hearts. Ogawa raises so many questions, I think, more than she gives us answers. Where do the things which have disappeared go? Do we eventually become accustomed to what we have lost, and not experience the pain as acutely as we did at first? What are we, if we have no memories? And, ultimately, isn’t loss inevitable?

In a beautifully written book, I am struck by this thought towards the end: “But I suppose the order of the disappearances made no real difference – if in the end everything disappeared anyway.” (p. 271)

There is no avoiding loss. There is only deciding on how it is that we will handle our memories.

About the author: Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope: All-Story. Her works include The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas; The Housekeeper and the Professor; Hotel Iris; and Revenge. She lives in Tokyo.

The Memory Police was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Find a fascinating review of this book from Tom at Wuthering Expections.


23 thoughts on “The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 and the Booker International Prize 2020”

    1. Hotel Iris is my least favorite…well, maybe it’s a tie with Revenge. The Housekeeper and The Professor is a “must”, in my opinion, and this is very, very wonderful. I highly recommend it.

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  1. I have loved all of Yoko Ogawa’s books that I’ve managed to read so far, and this newest from her sounds absolutely fantastic, like yet another that I could fall in love with, and fall deep into. Also love that you picked up on her references of the heart and its connection with memories. I think it’s very poignant, and makes me want to seek this book out for myself soon.

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    1. I think you (and anyone who reads it) could “fall deep into” this book. It is almost deceptively simple, thinking that you will be reading about a police state, or at least a horrible dictatorship, which is somewhat the case…but then, you realize you are reading an examination of loss. And, it’s so beautiful.

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  2. This book sounds incredibly haunting, and I’m particularly struck by your parting thought that loss is – for all of us – inevitable. Of all the novels on the longlist, this is one of the ones I’m most looking forward to.

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    1. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Although, this year’s long list is proving to be quite exceptional. Even though I’ve only read three so far, all of them are most excellent. The Memory Police would be a worthwhile investment, of time and emotion, in my opinion.

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  3. I have never read Ogawa – only about her. I love your description of this one: it sounds like it is the kind of book that really haunts you when it’s done.

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    1. I think haunting is a quite accurate word…The Memory Police is quite excellent on so many fronts. Another reader said she could not stop thinking about it for days, and that is the case with me. But, it is not a horror-struck thought pattern. It is more of a contemplative one, an introspection, for me, of all the losses and memories I hold dear.

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  4. This one is on my radar as well, I am glad you found it worthwhile. Your review has made me want to read it even more. It definitely sounds like a story which will stay with you for a while.

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    1. I’m so glad that my review has made you want to read it even more. Writing about these books is a little daunting, in the face of their excellence. I do not want to give anything away, and so I merely glaze the surface, and if there’s anything worthwhile in this post it’s all due to Ogawa. 🙂

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    1. As I said above, I have not loved ALL her other books. I thought Hotel Iris too closely resembled Lolita, as I recall from years past when I read it. But, we can say that they are all different, unique, and powerfully told stories. It was The Housekeeper and The Professor which really grabbed me, and this does the same.

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  5. Loved this. Read it last year once my library got it in. 2019 was the year of dystopias for us: 1984, We, Brave New World. The Memory Police was a wonderful addition to the (sub)genre.

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    1. You have read much more dystopia than I have. Margaret Atwood’s foray into the genre disappointed me so much, as I adored her earlier work…but, this book of Ogawa’s is somehow gentle (mournful?) as well as addressing dystopia. I loved it, too. Now I need to read 1984 and Brave New World; classics I’ve never opened.

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  6. Of the books on the International Booker longlist, this is the one I’m most interested in trying – all the more so after reading your thoughtful review. It sounds as if the tone is a great match for the subject matter, capturing the haunting feeling that typically accompanies loss. I wasn’t keen on Hotel Iris either, but this sounds one much more appealing – an intriguing, thought-provoking read with the potential to linger in the mind…

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  7. Thanks! If not “fascinating,” at least different. It is a book that allows different readers to follow different paths.

    I thought it was clear enough, case by case, where the “disappeared” things went. Thrown in the river, burned in a bonfire, etc. In some cases – e.g., the hilarious and grotesque disappearances at the end – the disappeared things don’t disappear at all.

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    1. I liked the different aspects we brought out in our respective reviews. You always give me something to think about which I hadn’t before.

      Yes, the things disappear into bonfires and rivers…some of them. But, where do the “disappeared” people go? The pbotographs? The memories of the people who have forgotten? To me, there was much unexplained or left “unfinished”. Deliberately so, as by the conclusion I came to think that their very loss was most important, not the how or the why.

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    2. The photographs are destroyed by the regular folks, like most of the items. The narrator burns hers behind her own house. I am not sure what you mean by the “disappeared” people. You mean the ones taken away by the police? True, we don’t know where they go, although they are not “disappeared” in the sense that the memory of them fades. Now, where do the memories go, that is a good question! That is a place where the novel intersects with so-called “real life.”

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      1. Hmmm, I do not remember the narrator burning her photographs behind her own house. (What kind of careful reading is that?!) As for the disappeared people, her mother dies, yes. But, what of the boy with the blue gloves, whose fingernails she cuts, who she glimpses out of the back of a vehicle? Or what about the Inui family; where do they go? I know they go into hiding, but…I guess it’s ultimately the people who are taken away by the police that I wonder as to their whereabouts, and again, it doesn’t really matter.

        Our memories. Where DO they go? They fade, of course. Or, perhaps worse, become distorted into something better or worse than they once were.

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