Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a terrifying chronicle of a totalitarian regime, examining remembrance as protest
Though Ogawa’s words carry a rare gentleness with which even the toughest moments in The Memory Police are delivered, the horrors experienced by the protagonists are obstinately palpable.
My grandmother who turned 84 this year, lost her elder sister a little over a month ago. She was just a couple of years older than my grandma and someone whom my grandma had created her fondest childhood memories with, on a tea estate near north Bengal where their father was posted when they were growing up. In recent years, they lived only two hours away from each other, spoke on the phone every now and then, and tried to meet whenever their health permitted. They spoke to each other animatedly each time they met, with a kind of theatricality which is perhaps only possible between sisters. Because of what the world has experienced in the last few months, and because both of them belonged to that age which fell into the most susceptible group, they couldn’t see each other when one of them was exiting stage for the last time. Among countless other things which this virus has taken from us, it also has forced some vulnerable categories of people forgo the opportunity of certain closures. My grandmother and her sister unfortunately missed saying their final goodbyes; an incompleteness no one else can see or ever fill again.
When I heard this news I found it ironic that I was in the middle of reading Yoko Ogawa’s minimal yet visceral novel The Memory Police, which deals with big ideas of authoritarian regimes and vanishing memories with a kind of lightness of touch that only a writer of Ogawa’s calibre could have achieved. But then again, one thing which 2020 has taught us is that it’s time we stop classifying quotidian details of life as ironies, in a year in which each day has stirred up a new hornet’s nest. First released in Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder only in 2019, and after winning rave reviews worldwide, it’s currently on the shortlist of the 2020 International Booker Prize which will be announced on 26 August.
On a mysterious island cut off from the rest of the world, citizens go about their days in The Memory Police with a detached passivity, as various objects — roses, photographs, perfume, birds — continue to disappear around them. All of this happens under the close surveillance of The Memory Police —the name given to the fascist military police force which stands guard over this island, ensuring that the extinct objects are erased from the memories of its citizens; anybody who is unable to forget is immediately arrested and made to disappear as well. The unnamed narrator is a writer who’s working on her new novel when we meet her in the book. But when her editor becomes the next target of The Memory Police, she takes it upon herself to protect him by constructing a secret room inside her house with the help of an old man who becomes her lone compatriot in this daunting journey — to shelter one man from the storm that awaits him.
It isn’t too difficult to draw parallels between the universe of the novel and the increasingly hyper-nationalistic, dictatorial governments the past decade has seen rapidly take control over the world. And though Ogawa’s words carry a rare gentleness with which even the toughest moments in the book are delivered, the horrors experienced by the protagonists are obstinately palpable. Governments almost everywhere tend to view artists with suspicion, and even as threats, which are also what makes the novel seem so urgent, because even though this was written almost twenty-six years ago nothing much seems to have changed since then.
Hence, it is not surprising that the prime adversaries of The Memory Police are those who remember; memory is a weapon on this island, a source of both dissent and rebellion. Artists make us remember and recollect even things we otherwise wish to let go. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper reminds us that Jesus was betrayed, Bob Dylan’s Blowin' in the Wind keeps the Vietnam War alive in our hearts, Rohinton Mistry’s exquisite A Fine Balance takes the readers back to the dark days of The Emergency in India. In a particularly chilling scene in the book, when a woman is being dragged away by the force as books burn on pyres all over the island, the last words she’s heard saying are, “No one can erase the stories!” Those in power have historically tried to rewrite every record of state oppression to suit their narratives, but art and artists have always found themselves standing between the ways of the powerful and the erasure of truths. In The Memory Police, as novels are disappeared and the writer starts forgetting how to type or build coherent sentences, we are made aware of this reality.
In Ogawa’s terrifying vision of this world, we engage with memory as protest — as a near-sentient being facing an iniquitous opposition which functions with the sole purpose of destroying it. In a post-COVID-19 world, which is still largely struggling to cope with the physical as well as mental ramifications of the disease, our memories are being permanently altered due to the social conditions wrought by the virus which has separated thousands of people from their friends and families. Someone I know attended their best friend’s wedding through a Zoom call; someone else appeared at their grandparent’s funeral on a webcam. I heard stories of people madly in love with each other even earlier this year, who aren’t able to stand each other anymore after being forced to stay together during the lockdown; a friend had to expose himself on camera to a doctor because he needed to get a rash checked and now says will perpetually live with the apprehension that images of his private parts are floating somewhere in the annals of the internet.
Through centuries of practice, human beings have become accustomed to encountering new beginnings and ends in a recognisable design. Whether it’s marriage or death, a matter of separation or medical diagnosis — our acceptable participation methods have always been socially predetermined. We hug our best friend on their wedding day and drink till we drop, we mourn the passing of our grandparent by sharing our grief with family, what happens inside a doctor’s chamber becomes a significant addition in the journal of our private life. But there is no cleverness in battling the alterations we’re enduring right now because all we will be offered in return is more indifference. So we must learn how to carry this cross, but also assist others in carrying theirs — as Ogawa’s characters do even amidst immense subjugation.
The weight of memories is heavy, but lugging the weight of inexplicable memories can seem like a Sisyphean task. Especially in a country like ours, where we also have the collective burden of living with miserable stories of thousands of its citizens, who suffered and even lost their lives on the streets from hunger, heat, and indescribable pain simply because they were stranded and wanted to return to their homes. There’s a scene in the novel in which the old man asks, “If we do remember something, what do we do then?” And R, the editor who remembers everything, replies, “Nothing in particular. We’re all free to do as we choose with our own memories.” To ensure the sustainability of that very choice, we must carefully remember this moment in the history of humankind. We must remember that we struggled and survived this time together. The Memory Police is also an intense celebration of forgotten objects. When I’m able to go home next, I’ll try and flip through our old family albums to find a photograph of my grandmother and her sister together — there must be one somewhere. And I’ll keep it next to my grandma’s bed for her to see. When she does, maybe, just maybe, for a few hours she’ll forget that her sister is now gone. Her heart will tell her that she’s just a phone call away. And her memories will rekindle and come alive once again.
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