I’ve always believed that Asian literature is sorely underrepresented in western countries. I don’t recall ever reading any books in school from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Indian, or any other authors from Asia. I’ve been trying to remedy that over the past few years by expanding my horizons with selections from different countries and my latest read is The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa.
The story takes place on an unnamed island, possibly off the coast of Japan, where things occasionally disappear. That is to say, the residents of the island wake up some mornings to find things, like birds, have disappeared. They no longer sit in the trees and sing, they no longer peck in the bird feeders. The few residents that have birds as pets instinctively know to open their cages and set them free. Soon after, the memory of birds begins to fade, the birdsongs, their names, what they look like.
It’s incredibly haunting. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason, no pattern, and there’s no announcement. The population wakes up and soon realizes that a specific thing is fading from their memory.
However, there are a handful of people who don’t forget. They remember all the things their friends and family have forgotten. Unfortunately, remembering is illegal and the Memory Police, ever vigilant, are constantly on patrol and performing raids to find these criminals.
Crazy, right? I found this to be an amazingly original premise. So surreal and haunting, especially the way the story is written. Even though my grasp of Japanese is limited to a few simple phrases, I still feel as if the translator did a wonderful job of capturing the eeriness of the narration. Some day I’d love to learn enough of one of the Asian languages to be able to read a novel in its original form.
But back to the story – It follows the unnamed protagonist, a young female novelist, who is friends with an unnamed old man and her editor, R. The young woman discovers that R is one of the few who can remember things, so she and the old man take it upon themselves to hide and shelter the editor to protect him from the Memory Police.
The story isn’t just about this espionage and subterfuge, however. It’s also about the importance and the fragility of memory, how most of us can only remember bits and pieces of our own past. The rest, the memories that fade away, take a piece of us with them. So in a way, we are all incomplete. Additionally, Ogawa leaves unanswered questions about the situation, the Memory Police, and other bits and pieces. I think this was a perfect accompaniment to a story where the characters themselves have to deal with the same, unanswered questions.
I found this novel to be a beautiful dive into magic-realism. The way Ogawa describes the disappearances and the way the people react to them is seamless. I didn’t question how or why, I just wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters, how they were going to survive this strange purge of things from the island and from their memories.
I have to say, this really is one of the most beautifully written and haunting stories I’ve ever read. It’s slow-moving, melancholy, and deeply touching. Highly-recommended.