Monday, September 25, 2023

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This was the month’s selection for our “Literary Lush” book club. While this book was not one I had heard of, or had on my list, it turns out that my second kid, the one who is double-majoring in Japanese (and Environmental Science), had heard of the author and wanted to read a different book she wrote. 


First of all, let’s get this out of the way: 


The title is egregiously mistranslated.


The original Japanese title is more accurately translated as “Secret Crystallization.” 


I believe that this makes a tremendous difference in how this book can be read, and what it might ultimately mean. If “meaning” is even the right category here. 


Also of interest, the book was originally published in 1994, but was not translated into English until 25 years later, which suggests an interesting backstory I was not able to find online. 


A brief search of reviews suggests that there are multiple ways of understanding this book, or of perceiving its potential meanings. Oddly enough, my particular view is apparently not one that other reviewers saw. I think my view is defensible, however, and I hope to explain that a bit in this post. 


Part of the problem in analyzing this book, of course, is that it is simply not an American or English-language book at all. As Silvia Moreno-Garcia at NPR put it, the author is playing with a deck of cards from a different game altogether. 


The easiest surface reading of the book is, as the many reviews attest, about totalitarian government surveillance. For American readers, this makes the book incredibly frustrating. Let me explain. 


The basic framework is that there is this island (somewhere) where things are “disappearing” one at a time. Birds disappear, roses disappear - all kinds of things, gradually. But by “disappear,” the author doesn’t really mean that they vanish. Rather, the memory of them, the knowledge of what they are and what they do and what they are for disappears. Then, under the orders of the “Memory Police,” the people then toss the objects in the ocean. 


For Americans, this seems to lack all credibility. Who would just go and toss something from their lives forever at a command? And, this does indeed reflect a certain part of our national character - we are and remain rebels at a really deep level. (Observe the insanity of our response to Covid, where basic public health measures were widely ignored.) This can be a problem sometimes, but it also is a bit of a bulwark against government coercion. 


It is fair to ask about whether the book then reflects a difference in national culture or character. Perhaps - Haruki Murakami wrote about the Aum terrorist attacks, and I do think that some parts of the response would have been handled better here. (And others a lot worse - this is definitely a good with the bad situation.) 


I also think that the author had the idea of government surveillance in mind for a few reasons. One is the obvious parallels with 1984 by George Orwell - and other dystopian novels. Another is her fascination - some might say obsession - with Anne Frank. The secret hiding room is very Anne Frank, of course. 


However, I think that to reduce this novel to just another spin on that theme is to miss a number of important facets of the book. 


Another member of our book club suggested that it could be about the loss of cultural memory - particularly for indigenous peoples conquered and assimilated. Gradually, all we are left with are the artifacts and a language nobody can speak anymore. 


That’s not a bad lens to see this book through. 


My own view?


I believe this book is a metaphor for dementia and aging.


Here is why: When things “disappear,” they do not literally vanish. Neither is the disappearance triggered by the Memory Police - who, by the way, seem like brainless automatons with no actual human intellect. 


What actually happens is that the memory of things disappears first. And then the people purge the thing itself because they no longer recognize it as existing. And, with the exception of those few people who can remember, nearly everyone is unable thereafter to recall anything. This includes the unnamed narrator, by the way. 


This is hardly a case of totalitarian government brutality. There is something very odd going on inside the minds of the people themselves. Again, with just a few exceptions. 


This “forgetting” eventually extends to people’s body parts as well, and the Memory Police seem to simply fade away and become important to the story. 


And then there is the title. 


Alzheimer’s Disease is the development of plaques and tangles in the brain that sever connections. Hmm. Kind of a….silent crystallization, one might say. The formation of hard, inflexible barriers to memory, to understanding, to the very way we perceive the world as it relates to us. 


In addition to these observations, I noted that the writing itself reminded me so much of my own professional experience in working with clients with various stages of dementia. The descriptions of seeing an object yet not being able to understand its use. The way people “disappear” from one’s memory - the book says they are taken by the Memory Police, but they also disappear from the memories of those around them. 


The way that, at the end, bodily function gradually ceases, is also fascinating. From stroke victims, I have heard that at first, the affected limb feels like it isn’t real, or isn’t connected to the body anymore. Which is exactly how that is described in the book. 


Also interesting is the “story within the story.” The narrator is an author, and continues to try to write even after books “disappear.” Her story initially is of a typing student who loses her voice, but it goes down a really dark hole, becoming kind of a rapey horror story. But that too seemed to me to be somewhat amenable to the dementia interpretation. She loses her ability to communicate, gradually, and then altogether. She ceases to understand what is going on, or advocate for herself. 


So, as I mentioned, I absolutely could be wrong about my interpretation - this is, after all, a book that does not feel compelled to “explain” the way we American readers so often expect. Just like Kafka feels no need to give a reason why things happen, or tell his readers what the hell his books are “really” about; Ogawa refuses to explain what is behind the disappearances, or tell us what ultimate meaning she intends. With Kafka, I ultimately found the “explanations” offered as to the meaning to be unsatisfying. And perhaps so with this book. 


But, just as with Kafka, the question of “meaning” may itself be meaningless. Regarding the former, the most plausible “explanation” for me was ““it’s a work of art that speaks for itself and thus needs no meaning.” And likewise for this book - I have the meaning I saw in it, but the book stands alone as a work of art, love it or hate it.


I haven’t given a lot of detail or spoiled the plot, because I think this book operates at a level different from the literal events recounted. Read the book yourself, and let me know what you think. 


As a final word, I will offer this passage, the discussion between the narrator, her friend the old man, and her editor (who she and the old man are hiding from the memory police, because he is one of the few who remember things.) 


“If we do remember something,” said the old man, struggling to find words, “what do we do with them?”

“Nothing in particular. We’re all free to do as we choose with our own memories.” 




A book that somewhat resembles this one is Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, which I highly recommend. You have the island, and disappearances - but of letters, not objects - and a totalitarian police force. However, it is far more “American” in that it has an actual explanation (a weird cultic religion) and people who actually resist what is happening. It also is a heck of a lot of fun, because the book itself loses letters as it goes along. 


I was wondering if the two books had any connection, but I think it is highly unlikely. The Memory Police wasn’t translated into English until several years after Ella Minnow Pea was written, and I have no reason to think Mark Dunn read the original in Japanese. So maybe just two writers playing with some similar ideas. 




If you want to see what I have read in translation since I started this blog, that list is here


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