“Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.”
The Memory police is a dystopian novel about an unnamed young novelist who lives on an unnamed island where objects like ribbons, bells, books and their memories are vanishing mysteriously. The island’s omnipresent surveillance agency ‘The Memory Police’ is incharge of erasing the traces of objects, memories and also hunting down ‘exceptions’ i.e., people who are immune to the loss of memories and so, can be a potential threat to the authoritarian government of the Island.
The novelist who lost both of her parents, a sculptress and an ornithologist lives alone in her house with occasional visits to her only friend an ‘old man’ who worked as a mechanic on a ferryboat before it disappeared. Her monotonous life takes an unexpected turn when she finds out that her editor ‘R’ is an exception and remembers everything just like her mother who was taken away by the memory police. She and the old man devise a plan to save R and hide him in a secret room in her home.
The novelist effort to save R, R’s hope to bring the novelist’s memories back, the secret of her mother’s sculptures, altogether weave a metaphorical world of loss, sacrifice, and struggle to save the last trace of the world that was once beautiful without holes in the hearts of people.
Structure and Elements of the novel
First published in 1994 in Japan and translated by Stephen Snyder, The Memory Police is a first-person narrative by renowned Japanese author Yoko Ogawa and follows her characteristic writing style. Loss of Individualism under a totalitarian regime is the theme of this allegorical dystopian novel.
Metaphors are the key element in the plot and have been used throughout the story to draw a parallel between the island and the real world. The voice of the typist, the books and the lost memories are metaphors for the brutal suppression of freedom and the rights of people. An act of resistance or questioning will lead to ‘a summon from the memory police’ which is a disguise for interrogation, detention and death.
The novel is a character based open ended narrative with no answer to many Whos? Whys? and Hows? There is no explanation of why the island is under a totalitarian government? What is the reason for mass surveillance? What will happen when everyone disappears? The story has no definite answer to these question neither an ideal beginning or ending. None of the characters except the dog, the editor and the Inui family has a name in the novel. The author is more concerned about the purpose of the characters than their description.
Readers who like well-crafted fiction would not be satisfied with characterization and the structure of the novel. But it is near perfect for a dystopian novel where the message is more important than the structure of the story or characters.
How is the Story Development and Writing?
Ogawa’s story development takes time and patience to sink in, but as it progresses the reader is captivated. Stephen Snyder has succeeded in capturing the peculiar and mundane writing style of Yoko Ogawa as the story does not seem translated. The passivity and sadness in the tone unexpectedly suits the depiction of the soul-stirring trauma of loss.
“They are the last and most beautiful memento I have of my late father.” But there was no regret in her voice as she tore apart the petals and sent them fluttering into the water.
The apocalyptic atmosphere of the island, the frightened people, the misery of fragmented community and disappearing traces of a free world have been evidently portrayed in the story. Ogawa makes a satirical comment on the propagandist nature and the irony of the oppressive regime when she describes the car sent to take her mother as ‘ jet-black and polished to a brilliant shine, it seemed as large as a house.’ and the chivalry of the ‘white-gloved driver opened the door for my mother’.
“Mother sank down into the feather-soft seat, and we waved as if she were headed off to receive a prize at a sculpture exhibition.”
The story does break the monotony of darkness through some heartwarming conversation between the characters. Unable to recall the memories which are deeply rooted in their subconscious, the old man’s longing for the ferry and the novelist’s memories of her childhood, echoes in most of their conversations.
In many instances the novel reminds of George Orwell’s 1984, e.g. The Memory Police is similar to Oceania’s Thinkpol which punishes people of thought crimes. It also carries resemblances with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where burning books are the means of censoring free thinking and ideas.
Any surprise element?
Ogawa’s genius in surprising the reader is revealed by the gradual development of the opposite circumstances into overlapping of the lives of the novelist and her protagonist in the novel. It will leave an indelible mark of Ogawa’s writing on the first time readers.
Who should read this book?
If you are an avid reader of dystopian fiction and read the works of George Orwell, Franz Kafka, Margeret Atwood, or Ray Bradbury.
If you read thought provoking books that question the order of society you should read this book.
Who should not read this book?
If you are looking for a book bursting with joy and happiness that will brighten your dull life, this is definitely not a good choice. Put it down and move to the next shelf.
We have lived and still live in a dystopian regime in many parts of the world with a dream of a righteous, free and just future in our hearts.
Was the Memory police defeated? Was the novelist, successful in saving R? What happened to the island? The thought behind the book is beyond happy endings, it is more about initiating a conversation about what kind of world are we living in today. A question worth asking in the contemporary socio-political structure of the world where dictatorships and human rights violations are on the rise.
Written in 1994 the novel has not lost its significance even after two decades, I strongly recommend this gut-wrenching piece of Japanese dystopia conveying a powerful message of freedom, resilience and survival in the era of suppression.
Pro Book Reviews Rating
Structure and Elements: 3.9/5