Yoko Ogawa needs no introduction. Nor does her seminal work, The Memory Police. First published in 1994, the hallowed tale about a mysterious island where people, plants and inanimate objects routinely disappear gained cult status in Japan. But it had eluded the English-reading public until this year, when it was translated by Stephen Snyder.
Ogawa is one of Japan's most prolific writers and the winner of several prestigious literary awards in the country. But her latest nomination is significant, given that it's for the English version of one of her novels.
The Memory Police is one of five finalists for the Translated Literature category of the National Book Awards, the most coveted US literary award for the country's authors. The category for Translated Literature was introduced only last year.
There are many reasons to celebrate Ogawa's novel making the list, but perhaps most important is how much its themes resonate today. Dealing with topics like government censorship, surveillance and the meaning of existence, The Memory Police still seems relevant almost 25 years after it was first published.
It's a strong contender to take the award, and might only be challenged for the top prize by fellow nominee, Syrian writer Khaled Khalifa's Death Is Hard Work, a profound road-trip novel about a war-torn Syria.
What is 'The Memory Police' about?
The Memory Police is set in an unnamed island where objects – roses, photographs, boats, novels – disappear. The despotic Memory Police ensure that every trace of the vanished item is erased from the island and wiped from people's memories.
Our unnamed protagonist is a writer currently working on a story about a typist who has lost her voice and now uses her typewriter as her sole means of communication. This suppression of freedom of expression is emblematic of the world depicted by the novel, governed by a totalitarian regime that enforces systematic disappearances.
The novel the writer is penning denotes the impact of the writer's surroundings on their work. The Memory Police, in that regard, is shrewdly self-referential and the totalitarian world conjured up by Ogawa certainly raises pertinent questions about Japan and its rigidly fascist past.
The order of this island is articulated lucidly by one of the older inhabitants: "When I was a child, the whole place seemed… how can I put this… a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance."
Speculative fiction at its best
Ogawa has spoken of her inspiration for the book, saying she sought cues from The Diary of Anne Frank. She says Frank's account of her time in hiding from the Nazis reaffirmed that individuals can grow even in confined situations and that writing can provide freedom to people. Freedom, then, is what our protagonist seeks by writing novels, a practice that has already become an anomaly in Ogawa's imagined society.
I would be hard pressed to find a more unnerving work of speculative fiction that's come out in recent decades – it is tempting to bill this as science-fiction written by Kafka – but that would be unfair to this intricately inventive novel, which stubbornly refuses to be bound by the constraints of genres. The story takes place in a timeless realm, and Ogawa's narrative is transcendent and effortlessly smooth, her plotline woven like gauze.
Both the protagonist's parents are dead and her mother was taken away by the authorities because of her inability to forget. Those such as her mother and her editor, R, whose memories also stay in tact, are rooted out and hauled away. They are easily detected by Memory Police, according to R, because their conscious minds are embedded in an even more powerful unconscious which makes it impossible to feign forgetting.
After every disappearance, the island is stirred, the remnants of the object in question are burnt or tossed into the river and soon, no one can even recall what it was that was there in the first place. One of the most surreal scenes in the book depicts the disappearance of the roses from a rose garden. The description is melancholic as well as beautifully heart-rending. "The surface of the river was covered with tiny fragments of… something… in an indescribable array of hues – reds, pinks, and whites – so thick that not a space was visible between them."
A seminal work
This novel paints a striking portrait of the significance of memory and reminiscence. It poses questions about the indelible marks left by our past and the malleability of memories – how they don't merely stack up but merge into one another and sometimes fade of their own accord. Remembrance, then, is a cross to bear in a society where forgetting is the norm.
This was the case for the writer's mother, who would try to entice her daughter with the smell of a perfume she had forgotten. Try as she might, the daughter cannot affiliate herself with the fragrance emanating from the perfume bottle, but can only detect "some sort of scent there".
Ogawa flexes her writing chops in these conjectural descriptions where she has to discard the standard conception behind these objects. Similarly, the aloofness with which she describes commonplace objects that have gone, such as photographs and birds, by depriving them of their ability to elicit any emotional connection is a testament to her craft as an author.
As the disappearances on the island pile up, it is not only memories that are being obliterated but also life, which is slowly vanishing. At its climax, the story takes a grim post-apocalyptic turn, which, while unsettling, is a cogent culmination of a story that is at once both contemporary and yet notional.
Ogawa meets Orwell
Orwell's masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the seminal works of totalitarian dystopia, a genre that has seen a resurgence lately, seemingly because of the rise in authoritarianism and surveillance culture around the world. In an essay, Orwell wrote that "totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth". Ogawa's novel, then, is an authentic and relevant reflection of this era of 'fake news' in which facts and news share a tenuous relationship.
This is probably why this novel is a deserving finalist for the National Book Awards. It is richly layered yet unwittingly resonant to current politics. The Memory Police, translated nimbly by Snyder, is a pensive indictment of state control and a coruscating, strikingly haunting portrait of our future.