The Memory Police

Like all ordinary people I worry I don’t a thorough enough record of the books I read. I do not know when I started having these compulsions: I have not always been like this and the truth is the worry is never motivating enough to sustain any commitment to one method. Instead, every now and then, I tell myself I am going to come up with a new way of keeping track, whether that is a personal reading diary or in a blog like this. Usually, after a few weeks, the compulsion burns off.  

My most recent attempt to find a method was a reading diary: I resolved to make a brief note on every book I finished, month by month. Like all the other methods, this attemp fell by the wayside. Which in retrospect makes the first entry, The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, from December 2020, rather fateful: the novel is about memory and loss – memory, loss and literature specifically.

When the pandemic began I went on a run of reading or rereading classic science-fiction: lots of John Wyndham and H. G. Wells, trying pulp classics like Dracula for the first time (fun beginning, fun ending, otherwise a stodgy detective novel) or I Am Legend (very different to the Hollywood film). I also wanted to expand my own definitions of ‘sci fi’ beyond the usual suspects.

Ogawa is one of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists, but it is fair to say she does not have a significant profile in the UK. The Memory Police was shortlisted for the 2020 International Man Booker Prize (for works in translation) but the original was published in 1994. It is a remarkable book.

I also thought it was worth reading for professional reasons… one of the quotes on the cover compares the novel to Nineteen Eighty-Four, another story deeply concerned with memory and which I have a responsibility to through my day job.

The comparison is an awkward one. The Memory Police has been described as a ‘dystopia’, but it is more like a slow, icy nightmare; comparisons have also been made with Kafka (who also came under my expanded definition of ‘sci fi’).

On the unnamed island where the novel is set, long since disconnected from the mainland, the intimidating Memory Police play a role in policing the islanders’ relationship with the past: those who continue to hold onto it live in constant fear of being found out and disappeared. Entire categories of objects regularly disappear. They literally depart, as in one memorable image of the petals on all the island’s flowers flowing downriver but they also lose their meaning for the inhabitants before they finally go, so that by the time they are gone the islanders do not even know what they are missing. In the case of human possessions, the islanders will often set about destroying the next set of objects en masse, seemingly without instruction, burning photographs and books in their gardens.

There is none of the world-building, none of the political, social, or even psychological mechanisms you might expect from a dystopia and which are so important to a book like Nineteen Eighty-Four (or at least, so influential in shaping its reception). These things just happen. The Memory Police themselves have a walk-on role. They are a threat, especially to the few islanders who have the ability to remember, who they hunt down mercilessly, but otherwise seem to largely mind their own business. Otherwise, one seems to know or care what is going on. This could be a comment on indifference as a means to survive in the face of injustice or tragedy. But it also means the novel reads more like a meditation on memory, on holding onto objects and the histories they carry (their smells, for instance) in the face of inevitable loss, than a political statement.

Memory is not a theme science-fiction has any exclusive domain over. Because of its cultural status, it is easy to forget that Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ‘literary’ a book as any ‘literary fiction’: Nathan Waddell suggests in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four that the reason the novel has achieved that cultural status it has is not simply because the problems of power it poses but because of how engaged the book is with the process of writing itself – ‘with how literary production can be influenced by the most diabolical pressures.’

In The Memory Police, the connection between memory and literature is perhaps even more explicit: the main character is a writer, attempting to write a book which is slowly slipping away from them, who finds themselves having to hide their own editor from the Memory Police. In the absence of the normal dystopian trimmings and in the novel’s sustained focus on ordinary, domestic life (much of the book is spent describing the process of constructing the editor’s hideaway), the pressure the characters are under feels far more diffuse than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, more akin to time itself; less ‘diabolical’, but chilling in its own way.   

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