A cherished photograph. Your favourite perfume. The sound of birdsong. All the books youâve ever read. How would you feel if your memories of all these and more were to vanish one by one? Thatâs the forbidding situation in which the characters of Yoko Ogawaâs
The Memory Police find themselves.
âThe struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.â Those resonant words from Milan Kunderaâs
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting are a key subject of this acclaimed Japanese authorâs newly translated novel, in which thereâs little laughter and a lot of forgetting.
Ogawaâs book was first published in Japan in 1994, and is the fifth of her many novels to be translated into English. The timing of translator Stephen Snyderâs English version is opportune, with so many of those in power hellbent on rewriting or simply erasing the past to claim dominion over the present.
The Memory Police is set on a remote Japanese island ruled over by a shadowy, despotic regime with the power to erase whatever it likes. This could be perfume and roses, or photographs and calendars, or even birds and books. The passive inhabitants of the island find that their memories of such objects fade away, as though such things had never existed in the first place. One of the vanished birds, for example, is seen as âa small brown creature flying high up in the skyâ¦plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast.â Such disappearances are involuntary and unannounced; itâs not as though this is a scenario from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
All of this sounds bleakly Orwellian, with overtones of âwho controls the past controls the future.â However, itâs worth bearing in mind that the original Japanese title of the novel is
Hisoyaka na Kessho which, roughly translated, refers to something valuable that is crystallised when suppressed. In this way, Ogawa could also be said to be pointing at the staying power of creativity and imagination in our lives. The narrator, a young woman, is a writer; her mother was a sculptor; and her close ally, a former editor. The sculptorâs work and its role in resisting erasure become increasingly important as the novel progresses.
Some sections of
The Memory Police are in the form of a manuscript of the narratorâs work in progress. It deals with a singer who has lost her voice and is now ensnared in an unsettling relationship with her typing tutor. This is a meaningful sub-plot that approaches the diminishment of personality from a fresh angle. As a counterpart, one of the symbols that crops up is that of an old music box that, as weâre informed, âplays all by itself thanks to an internal mechanism.â
Loss of remembrance is a subject that the author has explored before. In her earlier
The Housekeeper and the Professor, for instance, a car accident robs a mathematics professor of short-term memories. He subsequently pins reminder notes on his clothing, such as, âMy memory only lasts 80 minutes.â However, the seed of The Memory Police, Ogawa has said, was germinated by her fascination with The Diary of Anne Frank. The influence can clearly be seen in later parts of the novel when the narrator, along with a helpful old man, tries to protect and shield her editor by creating a hidden annexe in her house for him. The editor is among the few people on the island whose memories of the past havenât quite faded away, and the task of the Memory Police is to round up and arrest such wrongdoers.
The prose style here is unpretentious and plain, and many details of the disappearing world are purposely kept nebulous. This has the effect of making an already grim situation starker. It also throws into relief the bonds between the characters as they resist the disappearance of the familiar, which is another of Ogawaâs pet themes.
âNo one can erase the stories!â Those are the last words of a bystander in the novel as she is being dragged away. In our real world, this is not something that can be taken for granted. Itâs up to all of us to read, to remember, and to retell.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.Â