The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (2019)

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Yoko Ogawa is one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. Written in 1994 this has taken 25 years to arrive in an English translation by Stephen Snyder. The buzz about it has been so positive that I included it in my 2019- Books I Should Have Read post and now I have done so it is my first five star read of the decade.

It’s a fascinating set-up. An unspecified island location where from time to time things completely disappear, the memory of the object, be it a hat, a rose, birds completely goes and the people feel compelled to destroy any left hanging around. If they don’t do this pressure will be exerted by the sinister authoritarian Memory Police who remove all the forgotten objects as well as those people who can still remember. They create an air of menace throughout.

It’s a first-person narrative by an unnamed woman who works as a novelist and extracts of her latest work appears within the text. The other two significant characters are an elderly family friend, good with his hands, and R., the woman’s publisher who is one of those who can still remember what should be forgotten.

It may work very well as a disturbing allegory on power and loss but it is also a compelling read. I’ve never read a Japanese novel before and wondered if I would struggle with the cultural differences but this is a story for Everywhere and has been translated to convey something original and atmospheric. I can find dystopian novels bleak and depressing because usually people are not very nice to one another in their battle to survive but here there is warmth and friendship which makes the underlying terror within their lives hit home more powerfully. And all this is written in a deceptively simple, straight-forward style which makes Ogawa’s extraordinary concepts enthralling.

This is the fifth translation Snyder has completed of Ogawa’s work. I will certainly be seeking out the rest after this.

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The Memory Police was printed in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. A Vintage paperback edition is due in August 2020.

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