First published in Japan in 1994 by Yōko Ogawa, The Memory Police is translated by Stephen Snyder. It is a dreamlike dystopian story set on an unnamed island as a plague of forgetting engulfs it. Ogawa’s unadorned writing creates a world where memory is associative, embodying forgetting in physical reality: when objects disappear from memory, they magically disappear from real life. These disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, a fascist organization that sweeps through the island, searching houses to confiscate lingering evidence of what’s been forgotten. Otherwise, this forgetting process is vague and inexact. Things disappear overnight; in the morning, the islanders—“eyes closed, ears pricked, trying to sense the flow of the morning air”—sense that something has changed. The disappearances are an integral, accepted part of life, so each subsequent disappearance garners little response. The natural world complies as well: when roses disappear from memory, the remains of petals wash down the river. When birds disappear, people open their birdcages and release them. Ships and maps vanish, so no one can leave the island or even understand where they are. A period of hazy confusion surrounds each disappearance. There are components to forgetting: the thing disappears, then the memory of that thing disappears, and then the memory of forgetting that thing disappears, too. Ogawa ties memory to the physical, making the intangible solid and vice versa—one of the novel’s most compelling attributes.

The novel’s narrator, an unnamed author, has published three books, all of which revolve around disappearance: a piano tuner whose lover has gone missing, a ballerina who lost a leg, and a boy whose chromosomes are being destroyed by a disease. Throughout The Memory Police, she works on a book about a typist whose voice is vanishing. Ironically, she processes reality metaphorically, re-creating the mechanism of the story that she herself is in.

Interpretation of The Memory Police is very much up to the reader. There’s an ambiguity to the story and its themes, which might lead the reader to interpret it as a commentary on the control of our media, history books, and systems. One of the most prominent concepts of the novel is the titular ‘Memory Police,’ and most reviews of Ogawa’s novel focus on this fascistic organization. However, the emphasis on the Police themselves obscures Ogawa’s larger, more multi-layered argument. Rather than situating the Memory Police as the sole antagonists in the story, the novel also points to the power of invisible historical processes and how humans participate in these processes of time.

The Japanese title of the novel is 密やかな結晶 (Hisoyaka na Kesshō), which roughly translates to secret or quiet crystallization. The original title does not focus on a specific group of bad characters but rather on the furtive process underpinning the entire novel. The police themselves are only an ambient presence. They show up with opaque motives that strangely support Ogawa’s novel: the struggle to maintain normalcy both from the islanders and the police. There is much more mystery about the magic of the mundane here than there is action. Nevertheless, the specter of the Police, the disappearances themselves, and possible informants living in the neighborhood provide more than enough danger to give the novel shape.

The narrator often spends time with an old man and realizes, “If it goes on like this and we can’t compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes...we’ll all disappear without a trace.” The old man agrees that the island seemed fuller when he was a child: “But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow.” Ogawa expresses this debilitation in the novel’s eerie calmness and lack of misery—as the novel progresses, it feels as if a white fog is thickening. On the island, possibilities get shut out both literally and spiritually. When the residents forget birds and roses, they forget what these things conjure inside them: flight, freedom, extravagance, and desire. Their new environment crystallizes until it becomes naturalized and accepted. At a point, even the concept of remembrance as a form of resistance vanishes. Despite popular advertising and common dystopian tropes, The Memory Police seldom offers what might be considered a political argument. She makes readers open their eyes to how the natural processes of time, unfortunately, alter both their subconscious and the world around them.