Amnesia

Yoko Ogawa is one of my favorite writers. Her spare prose, the cool tone, the eruptions of violence into everyday life.

Revenge is a collection of interlocking short stories. The Diving Pool is a collection of novellas. Hotel Iris and The Housekeeper and the Professor are not significantly longer. Less is more with Ogawa. I like her writing so much, I did a podcast on her short story “An Afternoon at the Bakery”.

The Memory Police is Ogawa’s latest novel. Or, rather, the novel most recently published in English. Ogawa wrote The Memory Police in the early 1990s. The novel first appeared in Japanese in 1994. Astonishingly, it continues to resonate 15 years later. Here are some of the reasons why.

Roses

The Memory Police takes place on an island where things disappear. No one remembers when the disappearances began. There is neither warning nor logic to what does or does not disappear. Island residents wake up to discover a new phenomenon in their lives. Say, a river of roses.

Petals covered the surface as far as the eye could see. My hands had cleared a patch of water for a brief moment, but petals soon came flooding in again to fill it, and then they flowed on, almost as if someone had hypnotized each one of them and was drawing them toward the sea.

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police (PenguinRandomHouse 2019)

The disappearances are never complete. The islanders must finish the job. They collect the disappeared item — ribbons, emeralds or hats —and burn them in their backyard. The hat maker turns to making umbrellas. Once an item is disappeared, so too must any book or painting that depicted them. It’s only a matter of time before memory fades as well. The islanders can no longer recall the aroma of perfume or the song of a bird.

This must be a form of collective amnesia, a condition normally reserved for the victims of physical trauma or mental disorder. Ogawa lets the reader decide whether the government is traumatizing its people or the island has gone mad.

Typewriters

The unnamed protagonist is a novelist. She’s working on a manuscript in which her main character loses her voice.

In the early days of my muteness, I was continually struggling to speak. I tried running my tongue far down my throat, or filling my lungs with air to the point of bursting, or twisting my lips in all sorts of shapes. But once I realized that this was just a waste of energy, I took to relying on the typewriter.

When novels are disappeared, the novelist and her neighbors gather together their books and burn them.

“I had no idea books burned so well,” I said.
I suppose it’s because they pack so much paper into such a small object,” said the old man, as he continued tossing them into the fire.
It may take a long time for every word to disappear.”
I wouldn’t worry, they’ll be nothing but ashes by tomorrow morning,” he said.

The novelist takes a job as a typist. But she can no longer make sense of words or how to string them together into coherent sentences. She tries writing vowels, then combining them with random consonants: ka, ki, ku, ke, ko. She fails. This isn’t writer’s block but an amnesia of words.

Then, finally, the novelist writes this:

I soaked my feet in water.
It had taken me an entire night to write that one line. I tried reading it aloud a number of times, but I had no idea where the words had come from nor any guess as to where they might be leading.

Memory

We live in an age of forgetfulness. In the West, we grapple with politicians who willfully ignore facts, policy makers who reject science, world leaders who forget their history. For a novel written in the 1990s, Ogawa was frightfully prescient in her imagining of a post-fact world.

For those of us who live in the European Union, we have a right to be forgotten. But nowhere do we have the right to remember. Consider what this means in a totalitarian society like China: the erasure of the Uighur people or the collective amnesia around Tiananmen Square. With The Memory Police, Ogawa tells us that memory can be a subversive act.

What frightens me most is the total lack of logic behind the disappearances. For, in the end, it doesn’t matter why harmonicas are no longer allowed. The self-policing is what counts. This is the panopticon in action.

9 Dec 2019 | Karen Kao