As someone who has been reading American and European-written novels my entire life, the only times I’ve gotten close to experiencing Asian literature were through mangas, movies, and TV series. After reading The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa–a Japanese-written book translated into English–I was opened to a new type of writing style that readers don’t often see in American or European novels. However, that doesn’t make this novel worse than others.
Published in 1994, The Memory Police is a close parallel to 1984 by George Orwell, in the sense that both take place in a dystopian society where the government constantly watches over its citizens. Although both emphasize the dehumanization of totalitarianism, Ogawa wrote her novel differently. Her story begins on a small island where objects disappear routinely, causing people to forget that such things ever existed. Those who try to remember are caught by the police. Those who do remember are taken away only to never return, creating a government-fearing society. The protagonist lives on the island as an orphaned novelist. When she discovers that her editor remembers a long-forgotten object, she keeps him hidden in her home while the Memory Police search for him. As the novel progresses, a fear of forgetting is expressed through her writing as a way to preserve the past.
Considering that this novel was translated from Japanese to English, I’m grateful that the translator was able to keep the same amount of tension and emotion from Ogawa’s writing. Although the protagonist isn’t some fearless character fighting to overthrow the government like in American literature, that only makes her more realistic and more relatable. She isn’t trying to do anything unreasonable–she simply wants her editor and herself to survive. I admit the plot could seem dull to some readers who focus on the action, but I enjoyed the psychological development of the protagonist’s mind. There’s so much depth to her personality and her thoughts which can connect to today’s world. That fear of losing everything–including yourself–is clearly shown in Ogawa’s novel, and I applaud her for her writing.
In essence, I thought the book was a definite read, but only because it appealed to me. The only issue with this novel–along with many other books–is that there’s a limited amount of readers who would be interested. To those who think this novel focuses on characters trying to change a dystopian world: it isn’t what it seems. This book was more psychological than I assumed, with less action or romance. The protagonist doesn’t necessarily stand out amongst the citizens. Instead, the author is trying to show the perspective of a typical person living in a dystopian society. To me, that’s the beauty of this novel. In reality, the novel fits best with analytical readers who want more than just the plot.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is available for checkout from the Mission Viejo Library. It can also be downloaded for free from Overdrive.