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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Memory Police

Ogawa Yoko

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To purchase The Memory Police

Title: The Memory Police
Author: Ogawa Yoko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1994 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 215 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Memory Police - US
The Memory Police - UK
The Memory Police - Canada
Cristallisation secrète - France
Insel der verlorenen Erinnerung - Deutschland
L'isola dei senza memoria - Italia
  • Japanese title: 密やかな結晶
  • Translated by Stephen Snyder

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Our Assessment:

A- : very nicely built up on and around its disturbing premise

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 20/8/2019 Alex Clark
The Guardian A+ 23/8/2019 Madeleine Thien
The Japan Times . 10/8/2019 Kris Kosaka
Literary Review . 11/2019 Martha Sprackland
Le Monde . 7/1/2010 René de Ceccatty
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/9/2019 Julian Lucas
The Spectator . 10/8/2019 Anna Aslanyan
Sunday Times . 11/8/2019 David Mills
Wall St. Journal . 23/8/2019 Anna Mundow
The Washington Post . 15/8/2019 Jon Michaud
World Lit. Today . Summer/2019 Michael A. Morrison

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ogawa exploits the psychological complexity of this bizarre situation to impressive effect, overlaying its natural tension with sexual ambiguity and a sense that the lines between safety and captivity are being blurred. (...) A work of fiction that sets itself such stringent boundaries and problems of internal logic (...) must eventually reach a reckoning. Ogawa brings hers about in a deeply unsettling fashion, plunging her imaginary world into entropy and post-apocalyptic decay." - Alex Clark, The Guardian

  • "The Memory Police is a masterpiece: a deep pool that can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination. It is a novel that makes us see differently, opening up its ideas in inconspicuous ways, knowing that all moments of understanding and grace are fleeting. It is political and human, it makes no promises. It is a rare work of patient and courageous vision." - Madeleine Thien, The Guardian

  • "Typical in Ogawa’s universe, the novel disdains any pat resolution, as her intricate web of surreal tyranny tightens around her trapped characters. Yet she does leave us with hope and the inner voices creatively triumph." - Kris Kosaka, The Japan Times

  • "Narratrice fluide, Ogawa a l'art d'imposer son ton dans tous les registres possibles et de donner de la crédibilité à chacune de ses intrigues, qu'elle soit d'ordre sentimental, familial ou métaphysique. Cristallisation secrète appartient à ce dernier genre, où ont excellé Ray Bradbury et Bioy Casares, mais surtout le Japonais Kôbô Abé, auquel il semble qu'Ogawa rende hommage." - René de Ceccatty, Le Monde

  • "(A)n elegantly spare dystopian fable (.....) Reading The Memory Police is like sinking into a snowdrift: lulling yet suspenseful, it tingles with dread and incipient numbness. The story accrues in unhurried layers of coolly reported routine (.....) The effect isn’t solipsistic. Rather, Ogawa’s ruminant style captures the alienation of being alive as the world’s ecosystems, ice sheets, languages, animal species and possible futures vanish more quickly than any one mind can apprehend." - Julian Lucas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It’s tempting to see the book as a remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four, although here the regime is more humane: there are no betrayals or torture, and brainwashing is not entirely the fault of the police." - Anna Aslanyan, The Spectator

  • "Ogawa writes with a direct, understated style that enhances the uncanniness of the events she describes. Her flat tone matches the passivity of most of the island’s inhabitants, which in turn suggests a capitulation to deeply buried personal and societal trauma. (...) Fortunately, Ogawa’s wry humor keeps The Memory Police from drowning in its own gloom." - Jon Michaud, The Washington Post

  • "(S)he is using the machineries of The Memory Police to vivify a philosophical inquiry into the nature of self, the role of memory in its construction, and its inevitable dissolution as age erodes, denatures, and eventually destroys memories. The richness of characterization, the subtly poetic imagery, and the strangely compelling nature of the leisurely plot make The Memory Police singularly unforgettable." - Michael A. Morrison, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Memory Police is set on an island -- a world apart. Though it is, or was, once much like everywhere else -- any other slice of near-contemporary Japan -- it is, in an elementary way, slowly drifting apart, afflicted by a peculiar, bit by bit kind of entropy: rather than a steady, universal decay, things -- categories -- vanish, and vanish from the collective memory, one by one: ribbons, bells, emeralds, stamps, perfume are examples the narrator's mother shows her when she is a child; birds, photographs, calendars, and fruits are among the many things that then disappear over the course of the story. For unexplained reasons, as her mother told her: "that's just the way it is on this island. Things go on disappearing, one by one".
       The process is a mysterious one, apparently natural -- things spontaneously disappear -- but the population then also pushed towards accelerating the disappearance-process, dutifully destroying whatever is now meant to be gone -- for example, burning their photographs when that is the thing/category that is disappeared. There are powers that be -- unseen, somewhere behind the scenes -- that, for unknown reasons, encourage and promote the process, forcing it on the people:

     The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear with their own hands.
       Eerily and disturbingly, not only do the things themselves disappear, but they also quickly fade from the collective and individual memory:
     People -- and I'm no exception -- seem capable of forgetting almost anything, much as if our island were unable to float in anything but an expanse of totally empty sea.
       But while the narrator is no exception, there are some locals who don't forget. Her mother, a sculptor, was one.
       Meanwhile, the only authorities of any note are the 'Memory Police' -- and: "The first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances". This involves collecting any traces of the newly disappeared -- they come to the narrator's home when birds disappear, to collect anything bird-related left over from her then already dead ornithologist father -- but also removing from society those who retain memories. So also, when the narrator was only ten years old, her mother was taken to parts unknown -- and the body then returned a week later, with a death certificate claiming she had died of a heart attack.
       This has not been going on that long -- the narrator's mother was taken fifteen years earlier, when the Memory Police first made their presence felt -- but the actions of the authorities have become increasingly oppressive. Meanwhile, there are also organized safe houses, where those who are able to retain memories are protected -- but the Memory Police of course tries to root these out.
       The narrator is a novelist, and her editor, R, is one of those who remember. Enlisting the help of her former nanny's husband -- who used to be a ferryman, before 'ferries' disappeared ..., and whom she now simply refers to as the 'old man' --, she fixes up a hidden room in her house in which R can hide, to save him from the Memory Police.
       The narrator has already published three novels -- though she notes that, on this island (and in these circumstances): "Few people here have any need for novels". She continues to try to work on a new novel, with R continuing to edit it in his hideaway; it involves a woman who takes up typing, loses her voice, and winds up being essentially held captive -- not quite mirroring the writer's own circumstances, but certainly reflecting them; excerpts from the novel-in-progress are interspersed in her narrative.
       The conditions on the island worsen. Life goes on much as always, but there is always less -- a narrowing of possibilities, a greying of life around. The narrator's life is in many ways full: she has R to take care of and worry about, hidden in her house, the old man as a friend and helper, eventually she adopts the neighbors' dog, left behind when they are rounded up by the Memory Police, and she has her work. The disappearances do, however encroach, on basics of her being, eventually making it almost impossible for her to continue even trying to be a novelist, as she faces her own manuscript and finds:
I could read the words but I could no longer understand them as parts of a coherent story with a plot to connect them. They were just characters on a manuscript page, and they evoked in me no feeling or atmosphere, no recognizable scene.
       The natural world also smothers the island: snow piles up (as it had already in her novel), and natural catastrophes also shake this world up.
       R continues to believe that remembering is possible, even for the narrator, even as he watches her lose her grip on all these various pieces of past. A trove of memory-objects -- forbidden examples of the disappeared -- encourage R:
I truly believe they have the power to change you, to alter your hearts and minds. The slightest sensation can have an effect, can help you remember. These things will restore your memories.
       The hidden room where R is kept -- along with many forbidden objects -- is an oasis of sorts, a reprieve from the otherwise omnipresent decline of the island. The narrator, however, continues to live and work (now in a new job) in the world outside, and to be subject to the continuing disappearances, a slow collapse of everything and everyone that would seem to be leading to a complete erasure, personal and public.
       Ogawa's straightforward, realistic presentation, with her narrator leading a more or less normal life, compounds the disturbing feel of the story, as more and more absences take hold, the world narrowed down yet people still getting on with things more or less like always, as they accept whatever befalls them and soldier on. It's a bizarre variation on the usual totalitarian dystopia, the control of those in power at a complete remove, manifesting itself only in the piecemeal emptying of the world -- and of course the Memory Police, the enforcers (identical in to totalitarian enforcers everywhere). The very arbitrariness of how the premise manifests itself -- there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to what disappears, and when -- and its ultimate self-defeatingness -- unchecked (and only memory can check it, which almost have lost), it will consume everything -- is particularly effective.
       The title of the English translation, The Memory Police, makes it natural to emphasize that entity and its role -- in contrast to the original Japanese title (密やかな結晶) and the (literal) French (Cristallisation secrète) and Italian (L'isola dei senza memoria) ones -- and would seem to imply the Memory Police is the dominant and perhaps even sole evil and nemesis in the story, but there's considerably more to Ogawa's novel (and novel(-in-progress-)within-the-novel). This is a deeper, richer tale, a story that is more than just one describing brutal suppression by a police-like force in an isolated locale. Ogawa's novel looks, at first glance, small, in how it is limited to this narrator and her fairly simple life -- itself constricting evermore around her -- and narrated in such a straightforward manner, but really, it's a remarkably broad dark vision she presents.
       A resonant and satisfyingly unsettling work, The Memory Police is a very well-crafted piece of (hitting-maybe-too-close-to-home) fantasy, rich with (but also not needing) possible allegorical meanings. A very fine piece of work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 June 2019

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The Memory Police: Reviews: Other books by Ogawa Yoko under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Ogawa Yoko (小川 洋子) was born in 1962.

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© 2019-2024 the complete review

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