Book review: The Memory Police

The Memory Police
by Yōko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by
Stephen Snyder
Penguin/Harvill Secker
was first published in 1994
Science Fiction/Dystopia
Japanese Literature
288 pages


NB: longlisted for the #InternationalBooker2020 longlist on 2/27/2020

Buy the book

I have enjoyed a lot The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa. The Memory Police, her latest novel to be available in English, is in the dystopia genre, so I thought I would try it.

The main idea of the book is simple: on this little island, a special police arbitrarily decides that things should disappear, one at a time.

For instance, ribbon. So when the police decides about the disappearance of ribbons, everyone on the island has to destroy them. The weird thing is that as they do it, the memory of the object gets also automatically erased from their memory. A few weeks later, they have no idea what a ribbon is, or that it ever existed. 

The list of disappearing things gets obviously longer and longer, and more and more essential. But a few rare people do manage to keep their memory intact, which creates a major danger for their lives, as the police tries to track them down.

I loved most characters, warm and other-oriented. Ready to sacrifice themselves to help others.

The atmosphere was well rendered, totally eerie and suffocating, with the world getting more and more narrow, through the disappearance of things and the size of a special room.

I also enjoyed a lot the book within the book dimensions. With other things disappearing there as well. And how the two plots intersect.

At the level of the translation, the use of the passive with the verb disappear puzzled me for a while, like in the very first sentence:

I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first.

It’s used many times, but I ended up accepting it. It’s probably a natural construction in Japanese, and I guess there’s no other way in English to convey this very same idea. If you know Japanese, I would be curious to know if it sounds also weird in the original or not.

Besides the satisfying dystopia and suspense aspects, The Memory Police is also a beautiful hymn to memory and to the beauty of all that surrounds us. And a celebration of those who try to help each other to resist injustice and totalitarians decisions.

It is also a hymn to creativity and writing, as one of the main characters is an author, and her mother a sculptor.

The scary part is that you can see  parallels with our society, with the pressure created through ads for instance, imposing the choice of some items over others.
I don’t want to give anything away, but the most scary part is how what others said little by little became the truth for others, even though there was no concrete evidence to prove it! This is a real danger for our times, when sociologists say we entered the post-truth era. And technical abilities make us able to totally distort reality. If people don’t watch over their conscience, innumerable scary things can happen. And are already happening…
And obviously, there are too many people in the world today still having to fight to survive under totalitarian regimes.
However, I’d like to end this review with a beautiful and hopeful quotation:

Maybe there’s a place out there where people whose hearts aren’t empty can go on living.

VERDICT: Eerie dystopian allegory on the beauty of our world, and how it could disappear if we don’t resist, keep our conscience awake, and our heart alive.

Rating systemRating systemRating systemRating systemRating system

What’s your favorite dystopian novel?

In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.


19 thoughts on “Book review: The Memory Police

  1. I believe the construction “was disappeared” has been used in English for people — i.e. people who are gone and assumed killed. it’s maybe not officially correct grammar but the very oddness gives the sense of something being wrong. So it seems entirely appropriate here.

    Great review! I am interested in dystopia, when it can also give a sense of the hope and beauty to be found amidst the scary things of our world. This sounds like a good example.


  2. Great review! This book is definitely high on my TBR list. I noticed a number of recent books having to do with memory – The Binding concerned memory – forgetting and remembering, and Recursion is a new sci-fi that is all about memory. An interesting trend. Maybe Freud would have said that the general population want to crawl onto themselves and forget about the pressures and worries of the current world.


  3. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: From Three Women to a riddle | Words And Peace

  4. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: from a child to a professor | Words And Peace

  5. I have this on my TBR from a YouTube review and now yours is equally encouraging, so I think it gets moved up my list. Your description made me think of Ella Minnow Pea. Much like this island, a remote town’s leadership decides that certain letters of the alphabet cannot be used ever again, so are removed from signs, books, newspaper, etc. and correspondence is checked. The story is told in a series of letters with progressively fewer letters being available. It’s very clever and also shows how a few people with ‘power’ make sweeping decisions that affect a city/country.
    Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys


  6. Pingback: Throwback Thursday: October 2012 | Words And Peace

What do you think? Share your thoughts, and I will answer you. I will also visit your own blog

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.