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Yōko Ogawa: 密やかな結晶 (The Memory Police)

The novel is set on an unnamed island in an unnamed country. There used to be a ferry connection but, for reasons we shall see, that is no longer available. The novel is narrated by an unnamed female novelist. People do not read books much any more, the sole bookshop and sole library are rundown but she keeps on writing and her publisher keeps on publishing her. All her novels are on the same topic – things disappearing.

It did not use to be like that but now, with the Memory Police, things gradually disappear. When she was a child her mother had shown her various items – an emerald, a ribbon, a postage stamp – and told her that they had all been disappeared. What happened is that an item is declared disappeared. All examples are removed and people forget they ever existed. This is not just items like the emerald and the ribbon but things in nature. One day they see rose petals in the river. All roses have been disappeared. Gradually the petals float out to sea and disappear and all rose bushes are removed.

The same even happens with birds. The narrator’s father had been an ornithologist so she knew a bit about birds. Fortunately he dies before the birds are disappeared but they go too. One day the Memory Police come to the house and remove everything from his study related to birds. She had left his study untouched and is devastated but she has no choice. Other people whose jobs disappear – the milliner as hats have been disappeared, the ferryboat mechanic when the ferry is disappeared – find other jobs or retire.

Most people do forget but some do not. Her mother had remembered and kept the emerald, ribbon and stamp. Why do you remember all the things that have been disappeared? her daughter asks. I suppose because I’m always thinking about them she replies. But, because she does not forget, she too is disappeared as are others who do not forget.

Why is this happening? We do not know. Some time not all that long ago the Memory Police appeared and started disappearing things. Most people seem to accept this and forget what they are told to forget. Some however, like the narrator’s mother, do not forget. As we have seen, some are disappeared but some manage to escape and hide away in safe houses. Sometimes the Memory Police find these safe houses but sometimes they do not.

The Memory Police are now engaged in genetic research to see if those that do not forget are different from those that do. It will then be easy to disappear the non-forgetters. when our narrator lost her mother, the Inui family had been very helpful Professor Inui was a geneticist and he has now received a letter offering a well-paid job in genetics. He fears this means one of two things: either he will have to help them in their genetic research or he, too, is to be disappeared. En route to a safe house, he visits our narrator.

The Memory Police are well aware of safe houses so, periodically, they will do a sweep of all the houses in a specific street or neighbourhood and our narrator sees people being taken away, never to be seen again.
We follow both the narrator’s novel – an uncomfortable sort of love love story which involves various disappearances, including typewriters and her voice. We also follow her relationship with her editor, R. This is not a romantic relationship – he is happily married and his wife is pregnant – but a professional one and one of two friends. Her only other friendship is with the husband of her late nurse. He used to be a mechanic on the ferry but ferries have been disappeared so he now lives on the ferry and helps her with handyman-type jobs. She has no romantic relationship.

R has a problem. Unlike most people, he does not forget things. Sooner or later, the Memory Police will find out, possibly by genetic profiling. She decides that she needs to hide him away. Fortunately she has a place beneath the floor that her father used for storage and the old man builds in a toilet and other facilities in what is a very cramped space. One day, as far as the world is concerned, he has disappeared.

Other things start to disappear and then, of course novels, with a very symbolic book burning. She remembers an old saying: Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.

But it is not just the Memory Police. An earthquake strikes with the result that some of those who have been hiding are revealed. And then it is body parts. The body parts do not disappear but people forget, for example, that they have a left leg. Even their adopted dog forgets its left leg.

While there seems to be no resistance, the hiding away of people who do not forget is just one instance of people rejecting the memory loss. Some seemingly escape the island but, given the rough seas, how far that can flee on home-made boats is not clear. Our narrator recovers some of the items her mother had hidden away and, with the help of R, is able to identify a few.

Our narrator continues to write her nove about disappearance and features a love affair gone wrong and even more disappearances, including her voice. When novels are disappeared, she gives up for a while and then endeavours to resume her writing, with R’s encouragement.

Is this a satire on thought control found for example in 1984 or the Soviet Union? Presumably, while it is certainly a conservative country, Japan is not as oppressive as many other countries such as Iran and the Soviet Union, though, of course, censorship is found yhere as in many countries. Whether a dire warning to us or not, Ogawa tells an excellent and somewhat frightening story.

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Kodansha
First English translation by Pantheon in 2019
Translated by Stephen Snyder