Like all ordinary people I worry I am not making a thorough enough record of the books I have read. I do not know when I started having these compulsions: I have not always been like this, and the fact is the worry is never motivating enough to sustain any commitment to one method. Instead, every now and then, I tell myself I am going to come up with a new way of keeping track, whether that is a personal reading diary, or a blog like this. After a few weeks, the compulsion burns off.
My most recent attempt to find a method was a reading diary: I resolved to make a brief note on every book I finished, month by month. Like all the others, this attempt has fallen by the wayside. Which in retrospect makes the first entry, The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, from December 2020, rather fateful: the novel is about memory and loss, and memory, loss, and literature.
Since the beginning of lockdown in 2020, I had been on a run of reading or rereading classic science-fiction: lots of John Wyndham and H. G. Wells, trying pulp classics like Dracula (fun beginning, fun ending, otherwise a stodgy detective novel) or I Am Legend (very different to the Hollywood film) for the first time. But I also wanted to expand my own definitions of ‘sci fi’ beyond the usual suspects. Ogawa is one of Japan’s most acclaimed novelists, but I think it is fair to say she does not have a big profile here: The Memory Police was shortlisted for the 2020 International Man Booker Prize (for works in translation), but the original was published in 1994. It is a remarkable book.
I also felt I had to read it for professional reasons: one of the quotes on the cover compares it to Nineteen Eighty-Four, a story deeply concerned with memory, and the struggle of the individual to defend those memories from an overweening state, and which I have a responsibility to through my day job. In The Memory Police, which is set on an unnamed island, long since disconnected from the mainland, the intimidating Memory Police play a role in policing the islanders’ relationship with the past: those who continue to hold onto it live in constant fear of being found out and disappeared.
Beyond those superficial similarities, however, they are very different books. The Memory Police has been described as a ‘dystopia’, but it is more like a slow, icy nightmare; comparisons have also been made with Kafka (who also came under my expanded definition of ‘sci fi’). Entire categories of objects regularly disappear. They literally depart, as in one memorable image of the petals on all the island’s flowers flowing downriver, but they also lose their meaning for the inhabitants before they finally go, so that by the time they are gone, the islanders do not even know what they are missing. In the case of human possessions, the islanders will often set about destroying the next set of objects, seemingly without instruction, burning photographs and books in their gardens.
There is none of the world-building, none of the political, social, or even psychological mechanisms you might expect from a ‘dystopia’. These things just happen. The Memory Police themselves have a walk-on role. They are a threat, especially to the few islanders who have the ability to remember, who they hunt down mercilessly, but otherwise seem to largely mind their own business. This could be a comment on indifference. But it means the novel reads like a meditation on memory, on holding onto objects and the histories they carry like smells. On what it means to resist decay.
Memory is not a theme science-fiction has any exclusive domain over. Because of its cultural status, it is easy to forget that Nineteen Eighty-Four is as ‘literary’ a book as any ‘literary fiction’: Nathan Waddell writes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four that the reason the novel has achieved that cultural status it has is not simply because the problems of power it poses but because of how engaged the book is with the process of writing itself, ‘with how literary production can be influenced by the most diabolical pressures.’
In The Memory Police, the connection between memory and literature is far more explicit: the main character is a writer, attempting to write a book which is slowly slipping away from them, who finds themselves having to hide their own editor from the Memory Police. But in the absence of the normal dystopian trimmings, in the facelessness of the enemy, and in the novel’s sustained focus on ordinary, domestic life (much of the book is spent describing the process of constructing the editor’s hideaway), the pressure the characters are under feels far more diffuse than in Nineteen Eighty-Four, more akin to time itself; less ‘diabolical’, but seriously chilling.