Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police - “And what will happen if words disappear?”

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994, tr. Stephen Snyder 2019) is a conceit-heavy fantasy about a novelist who lives on an anonymous island where entire categories of objects occasionally “are disappeared,” after which the island’s citizens systematically destroy the things in the category, after which the memories of and word for the thing disappear.  Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp…” (Ch. 1, 5).

It is a multi-step conceit, which is part of its strangeness.  Sometimes, as with novels and photographs, the human destruction is central, with bonfires that evoke totalitarian horrors.  And sometimes:

The disappearance of the fruit was much simpler.  When we woke in the morning, fruit of every sort was falling from trees all over the island.  A pattering sound could be heard everywhere, and in the northern hills and the forest park, fruit came down like a hailstorm.  Some were big as baseballs, some small as beans, some covered in shells, some brightly colored – fruits of all kinds.  (Ch. 12, 95-6)

Part of the fun of the novel is trying to figure out the rules, but be warned that there are none, or anyways they are fluid.

“And what will happen if words disappear?” I whispered to myself, afraid that if I said it too loudly, it might come true.  (4, 26)

The Memory Police is a novel about semiotics, about the functioning of language, with strange constraints put on ordinary human capacities.  I mean, if the words disappear, we make more words.  If we all forget the word “emerald,” we start using “greenstone” or something.  But these poor people can’t do that for some reason, maybe genetic manipulation, the only hint of science fiction in the novel.  Ogawa wants to watch it all – everything – disappear, not eventually, but quickly.

The narrator is herself a surrealist novelist, and unfortunately Ogawa includes generous abstracts from the dull novel in progress, which features a mute typist imprisoned, by her sadistic typing teacher, in a clock tower filled with broken typewriters.  Her captor sews her clothes made from metal and fruit peels.  My impression is that contemporary Japanese literature features a fair amount of this kind of quirk.  The important thing, as far as I can tell, about the novel-within-the-novel is that the novelist keeps using words that she has supposedly forgotten.  Clues, but to what?

Early in the novel, birds are disappeared.  Later in the novel, the characters eat chicken.  Here we approach a novel I would have enjoyed, where characters successfully outwit the semiotic entropy by shifting signifiers.  A chicken is a bird, but chicken is meat.  The meat comes from – who cares, it is, linguistically, a separate issue.  The final disappearances take a hilarious Dada turn that move towards the novel I was imagining.

The conceit of The Memory Police created a curious Oulipo-like effect for me, where the most banal list of objects – “The rest of the tools of his trade were close at hand – files and cards, a bottle of correction fluid, a letter opener, a stapler” (13, 103-4) – becomes full of significance.  Unlike almost all other novels, I cannot assume anything about this history-free, disintegrating world.  I have to imaginatively populate it item by item.  Weird.  It is a little like the moment in Titus Alone (1959) when the “car” appears.

The prose is pretty flat.  There are many banal lists of objects.  But the conceptual justification is clear enough.  Maybe the novel had more interesting words that disappeared.

I liked Peter Gordon’s review of The Memory Police in the Asian Review of Books.  He thinks the whole thing is “an allegory on aging and mortality,” which is plausible.  I myself was strongly tempted to allegorize, but I resisted.


  1. This is next up for me, right after I finish my current read: The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Sookoofeh Azar which is...breathtaking. I am reading The Memory Police for the JLC13, for the Booker International Prize (on which it represents the only work in Japanese) and because I have loved Ogawa's work. Only, not Revenge. I will be interested to talk further with you when I am more well versed with the book. But, I am always interested to talk with you anyway.

  2. I am also going to read this soon for JLC13 (once the book gets in from the library). I like a fair amount of absurdity in fiction, but your review points out some elements that will likely frustrate me. Thanks for sharing (and preparing us)!

  3. Good, please return upon completion. Or I will find you at your place. Maybe someone will solve the puzzle. If there is a puzzle.

    With Tyll, I have now read two Booker books, which is two more than usual for me.

    1. By the way, I enjoyed The Makioka Sisters so very much. Even though the read-along is held throughout March, I have scheduled my posts and completed the book (I must persevere, or I lose context) so that I can concentrate on the Booker International Prize. Much as I loathe making my reading joy into a job, I feel compelled to read as many as I can from the long list before the short list is announced. So, now we will need to discuss Tyll, too! (When it arrives from across the sea.)

  4. I have not quite got Makioka in my mitts, but I am hopeful.

    The prizes do not have much attraction for me. But I do at least try to see what is out there. The prizes help with that.

  5. If the objects disappear first, and then the words, that is fair enough - though we'd still probably remember them. After all, objects do disappear and we have many words for things that never existed.

    A good conceit would be that the novelist themself became restricted to a smaller and smaller set of words as the novel progressed, so that it became harder and harder to describe things.

  6. At one point I thought the novel you imagine was where Ogawa was going, but no. The final excerpt of the novel contains even more "disappeared" words.

    A cynic might say the message of the novel was that we sometimes remember things by writing them down.

  7. I was also expecting the novel to turn into what obooki describes, like one of those French books without the letter "e" or whatever.

    Writing things down to remember them was a significant development in human history!

  8. This novel is like the opposite of the missing "e." "Look, there's a stapler!" The stapler somehow becomes almost exciting. The word "stapler," I mean. An actual stapler would not be exciting.

    I am all for writing things down.

  9. Reminds me a wee bit of Alphabetical Africa--constraint after constraint and then a free passage of word use for some reason and then back to constraint. And afterward, readers arguing whether various deviating words were errors or were used for some hidden purpose and occult significance.

  10. I thought about using the Abish novel as my reference rather than Oulipo. Alphabetical Africa is an ideal example of the conceptual novel. You do not even really have to read it to see what is going on. Just leafing through it is enough.

    And it does have that eerie effect of making the first letters of each word not necessarily meaningful but at least intensely visible. It's weird.