Yoko Ogawa ‘The Memory Police’

Booker International Prize 2020: 6 Books shortlisted for this prize.
1. “The Memory Police”: In order of reading book number 2.

I don’t normally follow this prize in detail but I end up reading some of the shortlisted books, since, due to the confinement, the award has been delayed and I’m into my third book of the six, I thought here goes.
In order to follow this event, hopefully I’ll manage to write articles on all six of the short listed books and propose my winner before the official announcement.
Visit the official site for more details: Booker International Prize 2020


My favorite story was the one about “perfume,” a clear liquid in a small glass bottle. The first time my mother placed it in my hand, I thought it was some sort of sugar water, and I started to bring it to my mouth. “No, it’s not to drink,” my mother cried, laughing. “You put just a drop on your neck, like this.” Then she carefully dabbed the bottle behind her ear. “But why would you do that?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled. “Perfume is invisible to the eye, but this little bottle nevertheless contains something quite powerful,” she said. I held it up and studied it. “When you put it on, it has a wonderful smell. It’s a way of charming someone. When I was young, we would use it before we went out with a boy. Choosing the right scent was as important as choosing the right dress—you wanted the boy to like both. This is the perfume I wore when your father and I were courting. We used to meet at a rose garden on the hill south of town, and I had a terrible time finding a fragrance that wouldn’t be overpowered by the flowers. When the wind rustled my hair, I would give him a look as if to ask whether he’d noticed my perfume.” My mother was at her most lively when she talked about this small bottle. “In those days, everyone could smell perfume. Everyone knew how wonderful it was. But no more. It’s not sold anywhere, and no one wants it.


The female novelist and narrator in this, Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, lives on an unamed island under the control of an unknown totalitarian power, unknown to us and also to the narrator it would seem. The island is policed by the strict and all powerfull Memory Police. The story begins, with small things, small events, and we do not know where the narrator is taking us as she tells us of her mother who had been taken away and the stories she used to tell her, epitomised by the long opening quote telling us that no one now knows what perfume is. But if her mother told her, then she had not forgotten.

As the story progresses, things are occasionally dissapeared, initially roses, and we understand that from one day to the next everyone on the island, which is cut off from the world, forgets the existence of roses. Slowly as the novel advances the scale of the things that are dissapeared is ratcheted up.

The narrator is a writer and we understand quickly that not everybody forgets the objects that are dissapeared. Her publisher, who had known her mother, comes to her and we learn that this sensitive man, R, can no longer hide his memories and is in fear for his life. The narrator with the help of an old family friend, the old man, decide to hide him from the memory police. The old man had been the ferry man before the ferry had dissapeared and no one remembered where it went. R shows them some of the things that had been dissapeared but for which examples had been hidden, he then explains the importance of these objects and their eventual memories to the narrator and the old man:


I’m not the one who needs these things, you two are. The old man let out a low sigh as though lost in thought. “I truely believe they have the power to change you to alter your hearts and minds, the slightest sensation can have an effect, can help you to remember, these things will restore your memories.” The old man and I glanced at each other and then looked down. We had known that R would tell us something like this but now that we were confronted with his actual words no appropriate response came to mind. “If we do remember something” said the old man struggling to find words “What do we do then?”
“I suppose memories live here and there in the body.” the old man said moving his hand from his chest to the top of his head “But they’re invisible aren’t they? And no matter how wonderful the memory it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed.”


What is memory and where can the manipulation of memory lead? As the narrator tries to come to terms with memory through the experience of R, she slowly loses her ability to write. R insists that she keep working on it and she slowly tells a parallel story of a man who captures the voices of writers by taking their typewriters, which contain their voices away from them and the eventual awareness of the situation by the female narrator of this story within a story:

At that moment I noticed something that should have been perfectly obvious, there was no paper anywhere in the room, not a single sheet of typing paper, not even a scrap fit for a note. There was no point in looking for a working typewriter if there was nothing to type on. Once I realized there was no means to get them out, words seem to proliferate wildly inside me, filling my chest and suffocating me.
“Fix one quickly!”
Unconsciously my fingers began to move as though tapping out these words, but with nothing to strike they just fluttered in the air. I went to the pile, retrieved my broken typewriter and placed it in front of him again, unable to stand the trapped feeling a moment longer. “Why won’t you fix it? what’s wrong with it? I can’t stand it if I can’t talk to you.” I held tight to his shoulder trying with all my might to convey this feeling to him through the expression on my face. His hand stopped moving and he let out a long sigh, then he wrapped the stopwatch in the velvet cloth and set it on the table. “Your voice will never come back.”

This is a haunting novel about the birth of hope and rebellion in a totally hopeless situation, it will come back to you from time to time, a truely impressive work.

First Published in Japanese in 1994. Translated into English by Stephen Snyder and published in 2019 as The Memory Police by Pantheon.

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