The Memory Police and Forgetting

Reading Like a Writer with Allison Wyss

Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police (translated by Stephen Snyder) is set on an island in which disappearances occur. Things like hats, roses, fruit, and calendars are made to vanish—not only from the physical world but also from memory. And those who mysteriously manage to remember are detained and killed by the Memory Police. 

The book is written in the first-person perspective of a novelist who, like most of those around her, forgets. What a challenge for a writer—to describe the forgotten! I'd like to look at some of the smart strategies that Ogawa employs to make known what is lost and to create the sensation of forgetting.

Here's a passage regarding the disappearance of roses.

Already on the second day, people who had raised roses in their gardens came to the river to lay their petals to rest. They carefully dismantled the flowers, petal by petal, and slipped them quietly into the stream.

At the base of the bridge next to my laundry platform stood an elegantly dressed woman.

"What lovely roses," I told her. Anything I had ever felt about these flowers had already vanished from my heart, but she was plucking the petals from her own blooms with such tenderness that I'd wanted to say something to her. This was the first thing that came to mind.

"Thank you. They won the gold medal at last year's fair,  you know." My comment seemed to have pleased her. "They are the last most beautiful memento I have of my late father." But there was no regret in her voice as she tore apart the petals and sent them fluttering into the water. The polish on her fingernails was nearly the same shade as the flowers. Once her work was done, she turned and, without a glance at the stream, gave me the sort of graceful bow typical of people of her class and left.

In three days' time, the river had returned to normal with no visible change the color or level of the water. 

There is peacefulness as the objects and memories associated with them flow away, a strange and eerie calm. When the narrator tells me "anything I had ever felt about these flowers had already vanished from my heart," I suppose I believe her. 

But I don't understand the emptiness of that unfeeling until I see the other woman. We learn that the roses are something she invested in, entered in contests, and that they represent her late father. They become a physical part of her body when they are described as the same color as her fingernails. It's also worth noting the tenderness of her body toward the petals and the grace and beauty attributed to the roses. The reader is made to feel connections of between flower and human being—and then to feel them break.

Yet the woman shows no regret, even as she discards what should have deep meaning for her. The absence of feeling in the woman and the narrator contrasts with the feeling in the reader. It's stronger because we are made to know why the feeling should be there. 

It also means that as the reader is feeling the loss, there are no words on the page to carry those sensations. Maybe the mismatch of words to feelings mimics forgetting. The descriptions we expect are purposefully empty. 

Now let's look at what it's like after the objects are gone and forgotten.

One technique (you might be familiar with) is defamiliarization. In the following passage, the narrator drinks something she doesn't recognize. It's not explained that it's a drink that has been disappeared, but I think it must be. 

"Thank you," I murmured, but at the first sip I knew it wasn't tea I was drinking. The smell and flavor were subtly different, like nothing I'd ever consumed. A mixture of bitter and sour, as though brewed from dried leaves piled up on a forest floor. The taste was bearable, but it took considerable courage to swallow that first sip, since I was all but certain it was drugged. Was it a potion to make me sleep so they could extract my secrets, or a solution that would allow them to analyze my genes? Or who knew what else?

First, the technique is useful because it doesn't violate the POV. A character who has forgotten about something can plausibly describe it this way, broken into the different sensations in inspires. 

As readers, we're able to piece together the clues to determine what the disappeared item must be. Coffee, right? But identifying the drink isn't the most important part. Rather, it's that separating the flavors and smells of a known entity leads us to unknow it, too. Unknowing isn't quite forgetting, but it's close. Furthermore, as the sensations shuffle together and we strive to sort them, we can feel the disorientation caused by a sudden encounter with something that has disappeared.

I also appreciate the menace of the description. The narrator isn't joyful at tasting a new thing but afraid of it. Much of this is due to the police state she's living in and the specific circumstances of her sipping this "tea," but it also helps us understand something immaterial and hard to nail down about the disappearances. The object is gone, the memory is gone, but some disturbing fog of it remains. 

Ogawa is startling good at turning abstraction tangible, which is especially useful when physical objects, which are often called upon to create sensation through their material presence, are gone. 

The following is from an excerpt of the novel the narrator is writing inside the book. It doesn't have direct bearing on the outside story, but it establishes that there is weight to abstraction, which can then apply to other ideas, such as forgetting and loss.

I was particularly susceptible to that distinct variety of calm that comes before the start of a test. Those few seconds when everyone held his or her breath, when the sounds of prayers and organ music from the church had died away and our senses were concentrated in our fingers—those seconds completely unnerved me.

I was convinced that the calm in the room would assume an almost physical form, like a gas leaking from the stopwatch he held in his hand….

The gaseous calm, emanating from his hand, crept along the floor of the classroom, accumulating in the corners and eventually coming to rest on my hands. It felt chilly and oppressive. I had the feeling that the least movement of my fingers would rend the membrane of silence and everything would fall to pieces. And my heart would begin to pound.

Note the way silence is described—and made specific—by the "dying away" of specific sounds. I think this technique is key. A ghost of a lost item makes the loss more particular, instead of just vague emptiness.

And remember that calm of the disappearing roses? Perhaps the calm of forgetfulness is not calm at all. It is chilly and oppressive. It is heart pounding. It is physically manifest. This passage resonates with the disappearances in the primary story, so we understand them as weighted and tangible—so we feel them in the body. 

But the most arresting way that Okawa creates the feeling of forgetting and loss is by giving—and then taking away—a story. As you've seen, the book includes excerpts from the manuscript the narrator is writing. This inner novel certainly resonates with the frame book, but it's a distinct story that follows different characters. It's also quite compelling. 

But in The Memory Police, on the island, novels disappear. Not only are physical books burned, but the very concept of novel is washed from the minds of the people, including the narrator. 

When the novels disappear, the story I was reading, invested in, promised an ending to—it vanishes. If the narrator can't write the book, I can't have it either. It seems silly to say so, but the panic of being denied an ending is such a real feeling! To not get something that is promised and expected is kind of like suddenly not having something that you previously had. And then consider the difference between losing an object and losing a memory. Isn't a promised satisfaction like a memory in this sense? It's abstract, yet felt in the brain, and then . . . well, it's gone.

I shouldn't tell you this: we do get the end of the inside novel, eventually. But Ogawa tortures me long enough to feel loss. Timing, I think, is crucial to this strategy. We must get enough of the excerpted novel to be drawn into it, to want to know more, so that we're angry when it is ripped from us. And then it must be gone long enough for its absence to feel permanent. 

Many books require the trick of making real to the reader what can't be known or explained by the POV perspective. If it's not a dystopian world of forced memory removal, it might be memories lost for other reasons or simply a character who does not understand a situation. The strategies I've identified in The Memory Police can be useful in those cases, too.