Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Memory Police BY Yoko Ogawa. Pantheon. 288 pages. $26.

Here in the United States, we are quite obsessed with stuff. We buy new cars, weighted blankets, statement sneakers, the latest iPhone. Amazon Prime delivers 1.5 million packages per day in New York alone. The things we own have become part of our identity, marking not only our tastes and values, but our sophistication and class aspirations. But imagine what would happen if, one by one, those items began to disappear, not just from our physical lives but from our collective consciousness as well. Who exactly are we without our things and the memories that come with them?

This is just one of the heady questions Yoko Ogawa poses in her recently translated book, The Memory Police, which is a finalist for the National Book Award. Ogawa has won just about every major literary award in Japan, a country also known for its appreciation of stuff (and, thanks to Marie Kondo, how to tidy it up). If she is not yet well known by readers in the US, this melancholic yet wonderfully ethereal novel should put her squarely on the map.

The Memory Police follows an unnamed narrator who lives on an unnamed island off an unnamed coast. For convenience sake, let’s call her A. We first meet A as a child, looking on as her mother unveils a series of tiny objects hidden inside an antique cabinet in the basement of their home: a ribbon, a bell, an emerald, a stamp. A doesn’t know what any of these objects are and finds them oddly bewitching. When she inquires, her mother explains that they are relics from another era.

What A is too young to know, but readers begin to understand, is that each of these objects has been “disappeared” from the island. In a magical-realist twist, the objects don’t just physically disappear—all knowledge of them evaporates too. “Things go on disappearing, one by one,” A’s mother explains. “It doesn’t hurt, and you won’t be particularly sad. One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realized. Lying still, eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air, you’ll feel that something has changed from the night before, and you’ll know that you’ve lost something.”

Ogawa never addresses what causes the disappearances. But the rules that dictate them are strict. Once an item is forbidden, everyone on the island must destroy it completely. People who keep an object or try to retain memories of it are imprisoned by a strict and malevolent surveillance group known as the Memory Police. Some of the offenders—like A’s mother, who was caught keeping her antique cabinet of “forgotten objects” when A was young—are locked up indefinitely.

If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or George Orwell’s 1984, you’re not wrong. But what makes The Memory Police so mesmerizing is Ogawa’s ability to take age-old themes and turn them on their head to create an impressively imaginative work that’s disturbingly relevant to the current moment.

Take the vanished objects. For readers, it’s easy to envision the eerie silence that would replace birdsong once blue jays and robins flew away for good or the chaos that would ensue if maps evaporated into the ether. But what if the entire concept of calendars suddenly didn’t exist? How might you tell the passage of time? In Ogawa’s version of that world, the current season became permanent. Calendars disappeared in the winter, and it just kept snowing, as if time had simply . . . stopped.

The Memory Police has a few other fascinating layers to it, too. In adulthood, A becomes a writer. There are passages from her unfinished manuscript interspersed throughout the book. This novel-within-a-novel—a dark and seductive fable about a typist who loses her ability to speak after her typing teacher locks her in a clock tower—is so creepy and intricate that it could stand as its own full-length work. (Note to Ogawa: If you write the rest of it, I’d happily read it.)

There’s also the quasi-love story that slowly unfolds between A and her editor, R. The circumstances of R’s life—his pregnant wife, a well-paying career—are vaguely sketched, but these particulars seem less relevant as soon as we understand that he, like A’s mother, remembers and hoards disappeared objects. Once A realizes he’s at risk of being arrested by the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him in a secret crawlspace underneath her floorboards.

It’s at this point that the narrative morphs into something more nuanced and profound. As R grows thinner and more dependent on A for survival, their emotional (and, later, physical) connection deepens, but not in the way you might think. Rather than focusing on A and R’s increasingly dire circumstances, Ogawa instead illustrates the evolution of their relationship through their connection to R’s contraband treasures. His fierce determination to reintroduce A to a music box, a harmonica, and other lost objects feels palpably bittersweet.

The reintroduction of these forbidden objects and memories into an increasingly barren world also imbues the novel, as well as R and A’s intimate conversations and quiet moments, with hope. “How does it feel to remember everything? To have everything that the rest of us have lost saved up in your heart?” A asks, for example. “My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains,” R responds. “Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

Without revealing the fate of the islanders, or how The Memory Police concludes, given Ogawa’s track record it’s safe to say the outcome isn’t rosy. Despite R’s continued attempts to keep A’s memories alive, the Memory Police continue to prevail. Things other than objects start disappearing and people adapt in increasingly desperate ways. Still, there’s something undeniably moving about R and A’s intertwined, ill-fated destiny. After all, when our memories fail, what else can we do but rely on others to provide a window into the past and show us the path forward?

Alexis Burling’s reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the San Francisco Chronicle.