The Memory Police — Yoko Ogawa

To my surprise, I found this disappointing. I’d wanted to read it for ages after seeing it shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and subsequently conveniently delivered to our door, via the book subscription I got my partner for his birthday last year.

The Memory Police is a dystopia set on a Japanese island where things are slowly disappearing. As they vanish, the Memory Police enforce the collective forgetting of the object — from boats to birds. The main character, a woman novelist, is one of the majority who do forget; others remember and risk being taken away by the Memory Police.

The premise, the nomination, even the cover all promised so much — but I found it quite dull. I’m undecided as to whether it’s because not that much happens, or due to how Ogawa (or her translator) renders events. We never find out how the Memory Police came to be and how things disappear. That would probably be fine if prose generated a sense of dread, which is brilliant dystopia — particularly about a totalitarian regime — has to do to succeed.

With translation, it’s impossible to know whether you are really getting what the author intended. (Unless my life takes an unexpected turn and I become fluent in Japanese, I will never be able to find out for myself.) The text was simple but had none of the magic for me of spare prose that conjures something sublime (my favourites being Deborah Levy and Madeleine Thien on that count, as well as Natalia Ginzburg in translation).

I’m glad to have read it but it’s just not for me. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you think.

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