Translated by Stephen Snyder
Review by Imogen G.
The Memory Police (published in Japanese in 1994, and in English translation in 2019) was shortlisted for the always interesting Booker International in 2020. I’ve read it as part of my focus on Japanese culture in January 2022, and for the Japanese Literature Challenge 15 hosted at Dolce Bellezza.
In the novel, a young, unnamed, female novelist is living on an island from which objects repeatedly disappear. As soon as an object vanishes – whether it be a bird, a rose, an emerald – all associations with that object disappear along with it, and then goes the memory of the forgetting. (As an aside, it always slightly amuses me how many authors write books in which their protagonist is an author, as if they can’t quite imagine themselves into a life in which someone might do something else.)
The disappearances are state-sanctioned and the populace are monitored for compliance with these wordless diktats. Those who retain disappeared objects, question the regime or fail to lose their memories and semantic associations are taken away by the terrifying and implacable Memory Police, who wear fierce green coats and aggressively shiny boots.
Loss of memory and the unquestioned imposition of control seems to be a recurring theme in what little Japanese fiction I have read to date, as do unexplained disappearances. Now-legendary writer Kazuo Ishiguro is a British citizen (with Japanese heritage, who spent his infancy in Japan) whose works repeatedly question issues around memory and a half-veiled understanding of the world in books from his most recent to those decades-old. Meanwhile, Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World springs immediately to mind as another (much less accomplished) Japanese book based around mysterious disappearances.
Our protagonist has lost both her parents to the Memory Police (her father was an ornithologist who died before the birds disappeared, her mother a sculptor). When she realises that her editor R is in danger, too, as his memories stubbornly refuse to fade, she determines to do whatever it takes to protect him and, with the help of a family friend (known only as ‘the Old Man’) she works to shelter R while dealing with the ongoing, progressively more alarming disappearances.
The book was menacing and enjoyable in an increasingly surreal, sometimes frustratingly obtuse kind of way, as the occupants of the unnamed island adapt again and again, and with resigned acceptance rather than despair, to an ever more limited environment. Perhaps this is what people do…