I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes

The Memory PoliceThe Memory Police
by Yoko Ogawa
translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This was chosen by my work book club and I would have loved to join that discussion, but sadly I was in a reading slump and didn’t finish the book in time. It’s a high-concept dystopia but it’s still very readable.

On the island, things disappear. En masse. And their disappearance is policed. Residents wake up knowing that something has to go that day – hats or bells or stamps, for instance. They destroy the items under the watchful eye of the Memory Police and their memory of the thing quickly fades, so that if the word is spoken it no longer has any meaning.

So far so strange, eerie even, but the scary part is that some people remember – and the Memory Police are hunting them down, taking them away.

Our narrator is a novelist, living alone in the house she was raised in. Her only friends are the old man who used to run the ferry to the mainland and her editor at the publishing house. Hers is a quiet existence, occasionally melancholy when she remembers her parents but knows that much of what she should remember is lost. Then someone asks for her help hiding from the Memory Police.

“ ‘Would you really like to remember all the things you’ve lost?’ R asked.

I told him the truth. ‘I don’t know. Because I don’t even know what it is I should be remembering. What’s gone is gone completely. I have no seeds inside me, waiting to sprout again. I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes. That’s why I’m jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tantalizingly transparent and yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.’ ”

This is such an interesting way to help explain what it’s like to live in a police state. Ogawa makes it completely understandable that it’s easier to conform and for many it’s inconceivable not to.

As the story is told, the seasons change from summer to autumn to winter. The encroaching cold acts as a metaphor for all the islanders’ losses.

The only thing I didn’t love about this book is that it features a novel within a novel – a conceit I never like. The embedded novel is rarely as well written as the story it’s embedded in, and even if it is, it jolts you out of the main narrative.

But overall this was an original take on a totalitarian dystopia, both coldly frightening and warmly engaging.

Hisoyaka na kessho published 1994 by Kodansha.
This translation published 2019 by Harvill Secker.

Source: Storysmith, Bristol.