The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa has won every literary award there is in her country. That’s how the novel is introduced before it begins, and it struck me as an odd thing to write. Each story stands alone. Why should my enjoyment of this story be affected by what other people think or how she is judged? But as I finished reading about a trapped writer writing about a writer who was trapped it occurred to me that maybe it’s all part of the same narrative.

Ogawa blends reality and fiction in a way that the dystopian events around her become understandable to us. We live on an island where things have gone wrong. Things disappear — ordinary things, things that shouldn’t matter to the people in power — and life goes on. How much can we stand to lose? Today it’s a rose but tomorrow?

What can you let go of right now? Your laptop, phone, coffee, children, parents? There’s a sense of a Buddhist letting go in this story. Remembering how things used to be hurts. When you don’t remember, however, you can float away, free.

Does the same life go on? What does it mean and what are the consequences? Her lyrical approach to reality and to isolation helps us explore how it feels. Seeing it through a Buddhist angle shifts the narrative from the dystopia we are used to.

In the reviews, many compare it to Orwell’s 1984. There is a secretive police that round up those who won’t obey. They are then tortured and murdered. Some come back — those found not guilty/useful — but most are never seen again. We do have a sense that they are uncaring and certainly destructive.

This is a wonderful narrative. I never quite knew where I would end up as I followed our nameless characters. We don’t find out their names. We learn of R — her editor — and the old man, and her mother and father. We don’t find out her name. Which makes sense. Are our names in our diaries? Do we need them when we talk to ourselves, or listen?

Jesus was such a great Buddhist that he even gave up his own body. Ogawa wonders and answers, what happened next?

The Memory Police was published 15 August 2020

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