The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

When roses are “forgotten” on the island, a cascade of rose petals wends down the river outside our narrator’s house, on their way to oblivion in the open sea. Henceforth, no one on the island will understand what the word “rose” means; it has been excised. It’s the islanders themselves who have deflowered their roses and thrown the petals in the river. Since roses have disappeared, suddenly, in a vanishing of the mind, the flower itself has been rendered functionally invisible and must be removed. The memory police will enforce this occurrence. Any roses now discovered will be seized and their owners arrested. Although it’s not clear that the memory police have mandated this erasure; they do enforce it. It’s one of the many puzzles in this enigmatic novel.

Most of the island population has now forgotten about roses. One or two sensitive souls, here and there, may occasionally have a glimmer that something like a rose is “missing”. But everyone expects these disappearances to occur, suddenly, with almost no warning, perhaps with a slight chilling in the air, which indicates to the more perceptive that something else is about to disappear.

Except there are those who don’t fit in. These alienated nonconformists are not affected by the erasure process. They’re pariahs because they remember what the rest of the island’s inhabitants have forgotten. They go into hiding from the memory police. If discovered, they will be hauled away in sinister, green-clad trucks. What happens to them? What do you think?

Our narrator is a young woman, a writer, a calling that in itself renders her subversive, since writers, as the guardians of language, when they write stories, memorialize. She lives in the house by the river which used to belong to her late mother, an artist. Her mother’s studio is in the basement of the house, which offers an exit door to the river and a kind of platform on the river’s bank where washing used to be done. The mother was also one of the “freaks” who didn’t forget things. In fact, she has hidden secret forbidden objects in small drawers in her basement studio.

Her daughter, like most of the islanders, is not blessed/or cursed with remembering lost memory objects. When she examines her mother’s hidden objects, they seem like meaningless entities to her. One interesting object is a small perfume bottle. Perfume is one of the things that has been “wiped away” on the island. When the daughter smells the scent, guided by someone who remembers perfume, she’s becomes confused and disoriented. She can’t place the experience of smelling perfume..

People are wonderfully adaptable-perhaps too adaptable. Those who are not adaptable, who remember the erased objects are outcasts. The narrator hides her own editor, someone who remembers, as she attempts to finish her latest novel after novels have been erased and the island library burned. The islanders book burning scene is frightening in that it looks so normal, as if it could happen in your neighborhood.

No matter what disappears on the island, the locals say: “So what, we can do without that!” They adapt no matter how many memories and their associated objects are erased. The ferry is “forgotten”, and they are cut off. No matter what is removed, they act like they can do without it. If there is anyone who misses the forgotten objects, they keep quiet about it. And everyone is afraid of the memory police. Most of the population is affected by a kind of existential  Alzheimer’s. Can you imagine all birds being forgotten, rendered meaningless and invisible objects, which happens in the novel, and saying: “I don’t care.”? The story is a slow motion exercise in extinction.

This review has taken some time to outline the basic algebraic “set” of the story. It’s very much a Japanese narrative of sensibility. I doubt that many other cultures could make a river of rose petals work in a novel. The Memory Police reminded me a bit of Banana Yoshimoto’s Moshi Moshi in its expressions of cultivated feelings. The Memory Police approaches Kafka in its literary excellence, which is a startling surprise. It’s as dark as dystopian gets, but sensitive and extremely precise in its dark matter energy.