Imagine there is a fire, you try to save the most important and cherished items. Now read this dystopian scenario wherein these very items, objects are disappearing without warning.
What would you do when not only are you failed by your memories of those objects, but also policed to shed any associated feelings, incidences and perceptions of those very objects? These could be hats, books, roses or candies. To what extent would you go to preserve those objects, memories and by extension the ones we love.
Yoko Ogawa pondered on these very haunting questions in her book, The Memory Police, which was released in 1994 but the English translation by Stephen Snyder released last year. This work was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, and the translation by Snyder was nothing short of pitch perfect and deserving of the prize.
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The Memory Police, is set in an unnamed island and narrated by an unnamed writer. Strange things are happening here. Things disappear and so do the memories, feelings and experiences associated with the things. The Memory Police are tasked with the objective to enforce compliance of removal of these objects and their memories and leave no stone unturned to destroy, abandon and erase the existence of things and their memories that are supposed to disappear. But not everyone forgets as we discover, some remember, due to unexplained reasons, and they are taken to be studied, analysed and their information is stored in databases.
The narrator of The Memory Police is tasked with this objective. She finds out that her editor, R, is one such person who remembered things that disappeared, just like her own mother used to remember and had tried to pass on these memories to her as a child. The narrator, with the help of her friend, set up a secret room for R and decides to offer him a refuge away from the eyes of the Memory Police. This story then describes the lengths to which she fights for him and how R takes efforts to make her remember these things which they all have lost but somehow, he still remembers. R encourages the narrator to continue with her writing, even when books disappear. We come across a sinister subplot in The Memory Police, which reflects the chaos that the world the writer is living in. This one revolves around a typist who loses her voice and finds a typewriter to communicate her thoughts and words. This subplot moves at the lucid pace of the book, and reveals disturbing truths about circularity of circumstances, fortitude and emotions.
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But this book is not about science or politics. Yoko Ogawa is not interested in such larger mechanics of the world, instead she weaves the story around what this kind of world does to people who cannot rely on their memories any longer. The Memory Police was a promising contender for the Booker Prize award (The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Dutch-Netherlands) was announced the winner) for the magnificent translation which does great justice to the story. The writing is lyrical, ominous, evocative and at the same time simple in its presentation and imagery. Readers should be warned that the editor is to remain confined in a trap room; so, don’t read if you are too disturbed by the current state, we are living in.
In these times, when time and memories seem to be chasing each other in circles, this book will give some solace, as a book sent from the near future. As I finished reading it, I made note of things that seemed like distant memory, sharing an ice cream with a friend, taking the train to travel, walking to the children’s park and eating from the street-side vendor.