Yoko Ogawa’s Dystopian Novel Highlights Importance of Memory and Storytelling

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Pantheon Books, 274pp. Maruzen price: ¥1,840 plus tax

On Nov. 9, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra held a concert at Suntory Hall in Minato Ward, Tokyo. Despite the current COVID-19 travel restrictions, their visit to Japan was made a reality by special government measures. That night, the beautiful harmony they created gradually relieved the tense expressions of the large audience, who were wearing face masks. Onstage, Japanese cellist Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi moved his body with the music as he cheerfully played Tchaikovsky together with the orchestra. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we can’t travel overseas, and classical concerts are not often held.

It was disturbing to realize that I had unknowingly forgotten my memories of listening to live music.

In “The Memory Police,” a novel that Akutagawa Prize winner Yoko Ogawa wrote in Japanese in 1994, people living on an island isolated from the outside world have forgotten many memories one by one.

On the island, memories of precious things — birds, roses, calendars and more — suddenly disappear from people’s minds, one after another. In rare cases, some people are able to retain such memories, but then the Memory Police come around and take them away.

The English-language edition of this book, translated by Stephen Snyder, was published last year. A quarter-century after Ogawa wrote the original Japanese edition, “The Memory Police” has received worldwide attention. It was named a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature in the United States, as well as for the 2020 International Booker Prize in Britain. The book is regarded as a masterpiece that foresaw the current critical situation regarding memories and facts.

Since 2016, so-called post-truth politics have spread worldwide. Public opinion has taken little account of objective facts, while appeals to people’s emotions have become more politically potent. The rise of U.S. President Donald Trump and the British withdrawal from the European Union were notable parts of this phenomenon.

At the same time, there was a surge in sales of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984.” I think that people want to know what facts are, or what it means to have memories, by reading such books.

Moreover, amid the coronavirus pandemic, many little things in our everyday lives are now gone as we inevitably have to refrain from them. For example, a neighborhood sushi restaurant where I had been a regular closed quietly during the state of emergency in April. We can’t meet our elderly parents living in regional areas. We can’t enjoy the company of friends as before. And of course, “listening to live music at a concert” is a part of what has been missing. As I read this novel, I felt it overlapping my own experience of being deprived of memories due to infection prevention measures.

In this novel, the memory of the very idea of “novels” — which are indispensable for the main character, as she is a novelist — is one of the things that has disappeared. People on the island set the library on fire and bring other books to burn in the parks and fields. This book burning makes me think of the misery and horror of Germany’s Nazi era.

The most memorable scene involves a young woman’s last words as the Memory Police drag her away. “No one can erase the stories!”

Ogawa began living in the world of words after reading Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” in her early teens. Ogawa also wrote a travelogue, “Memories of Anne Frank,” in which she traced Anne’s footsteps. Eventually becoming one of the millions of Jews sent to concentration camps, Anne found an interior world that was wider and more free than the physical world outside by writing her diary.

The main character in “The Memory Police” also wants to write a story by lining words up one by one, even after the concept of novels has disappeared.

A friend in Berlin told me by email that one can find small square metal plates set into the stone pavement while walking around the city. The names of people taken away to concentration camps in the Nazi era are inscribed there. Like the “stumbling stones” memorial project, I think Ogawa’s great dystopian work shows that remembering things and weaving stories are a much bigger help for people than simply putting unacceptable realities out of their minds.