The Memory Police

I read this novel by Yoko Ogawa in June for my book club. It was published in Japan in 1994 but was translated into English only in 2019. It was a very good read, one of the best novels I’ve read this year, but it was very strange.

The novel is set on an island (presumably a Japanese one, but we are not told). It has only a handful of protagonists, a woman novelist, her editor (referred to as “R.”), and old man who lived on a boat and later moved in with the novelist. Near the end of the novel, the novelist also adopts a dog.

The novel has a strangely calm atmosphere, with life going on mundanely despite all the strange things that are going on. Every now and then (and it accelerates towards the end of the novel), things disappear. People wake up in the morning with a strange feeling and suddenly they know that something has disappeared. But there are still relics of these things, which they then gather up and destroy. Most people then immediately forget that these disappeared things ever existed and go on with their lives as though nothing has happened.

But our memories were diminishing day by day, for when something disappeared from the island, all memory of it vanished, too.

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, 2019 (1994) p.18.

However, some people are immune. They remember the disappeared things, even keep some of them, and talk about them – all of which is forbidden. These people are persecuted by the Memory Police, who round them up and “disappear” them. Anyone who ends up in the clutches of the Memory Police is never heard from again.

The main protagonist, the novelist, finds out that her editor “R.” is also one of the immune people, and, because she is in love with him (despite his being married and his wife expecting a baby), she offers to hide him in a secret compartment in her house, which she built with the help of the old man. So, life goes on with R. hidden in the novelist’s house. More and more things disappear, including books, so that the novelist is no longer able to write novels, but instead turns into a typist. She’s still trying to write her novel, but it’s difficult, as lots of words have disappeared and the whole concept of a novel is gone. Her novel also strangely mirrors her life, being about a typist who’s locked up and loses her voice and her ability to communicate.

In the later part of the novel, people’s body parts also start disappearing – they don’t really disappear, but they disappear from one’s perception, so that you can’t really use them. This also affects animals. The first thing to disappear was left legs. People and animals can’t perceive their left legs anymore or feel them. They still exists, but can’t be used anymore (luckily, they didn’t try to destroy their legs, that would have been macabre).

Gradually we came accustomed to living without our legs. Needless to say, things did not go back to the way they had been before, not exactly, but our bodies acquired a new sense of balance, and a new kind of daily rhythm took hold.
No matter how much time went by, there was no sign that our left legs were going to rot and drop off. They remained firmly in place, fixed to our hips. But no one seemed to care.

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, 2019 (1994) p.251.


We are never told why things disappear, why people can’t remember disappeared things, why some people are immune and why they are hunted by the Memory Police. We also don’t know who the Memory Police are working for (are they part of a totalitarian regime?). We don’t know if the disappearances affect only the island or if this is happening throughout the world. This openness made for a lively discussion in my book club. One or two of the book club members really hated the novel and thought it was idiotic, some quite liked it and others liked it very much indeed. I was one of the latter.

The writing is lovely, and a lot of things happen in the novel (it’s not a novel without a plot). It’s just that absurd things happen without explanation and the ending is totally open. Maybe one can call it Kafkaesque although I personally never liked what I read of Kafka (too depressing) and I did like this novel (somehow not depressing). I found it fascinating and thought-provoking and would recommend it for readers that don’t mind that questions aren’t answered, and the ending remains open.

Some of the book club members found that the novel spoke to their experiences during Corona, where things also kind of disappeared in so far as they couldn’t be done anymore and one had to adjust to doing without – no longer going to the office, no concerts or sport events… Though these things are luckily not lost forever.

A remark about yesterday’s post: I wanted to try the hypnosis app recommended by Huberman, but it wouldn’t start on my smartphone. So, I deinstalled it again. I’ll have a look at his other video on the topic to find out the details, and if I’m still intrigued, I’ll look for other instructions for self-hypnosis. As it is, I did some meditation instead after lunch today. I’ve done that sometimes before I ever heard of Huberman and it’s quite a good way to recharge (certainly better than surfing the internet during one’s lunch break). I’ve also put blocks in my work Outlook calendar to remind me of the best productive times in the mornings and afternoon for working on difficult topics. The other times are left for things like email and mindless quality checks and other busy work. I was quite energized at work today, but I usually am when I try out new things (or resurrect old ones). Usually, after some time I revert to my old habits of doing the easy daily stuff in the morning and then being somewhat exhausted in the afternoon. I always get everything done, but I should stick with the ways that make getting things done more efficient and enjoyable.

This morning, as I was in a meeting, I happened to look out of the window and saw a deer with two fawns jumping through a field of grain in the valley. The deer would run and jump a few paces, with the fawn following, then stop and look around, the fawns also stopping, and then start again. After a few minutes they disappeared into a corn field. They were almost the exact shade of brownish yellow as the grain and very hard to see (and too far away to take a photo). I just saw them because I chanced to see their movement. Very sweet.

Yesterday it rained from early afternoon until late afternoon. And today it was overcast and will probably rain again tonight, but we also had few instances when sunlight burst through the clouds. It’s very cool for the middle of summer, only 20°C (or even less). On our morning walk, Curious Dog and I met a woman with a child and a young female German shepherd, a very cute and friendly dog. Both dogs refused to walk on; we had to let them play a bit. CD and I then had a lovely walk through the soggy woods. I like rain in summer (although we do need a few hot days soon, so that the grain in the fields can dry out in time for harvesting).

Keep safe, world.

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