The Memory Police

Yoko Agawa

Translated by Stephen Snyder

Harvill Secker, £12.99

Under the staircase, the mother of The Memory Police’s unnamed female narrator once kept secret things – things, it transpires, that had disappeared.

“When she was taking a break from her work, she would show me the things and tell me stories about them. Strange stories like nothing I had ever read in my picture books,” the novelist-narrator, tells her editor, R, whose curse it is to remember the things that are to be forgotten.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, a much-decorated Japanese author born in 1962, is a dystopian allegory that sizzles with allusion. The eponymous Memory Police, who roam the town “in trenchcoat and boots” hunting down those, like R, who have failed to forget the disappeared things, evoke Iran’s morality police, combing the streets of Tehran for women whose manteaux are too tight, their headscarves too loose.

Indeed, part of the book’s power lies in there having been so many such oppressors in human history. Like shadow characters, the Gestapo, Stasi, KGB and every jackbooted secret police force that has ever existed step forward, as we read about the Memory Police’s dawn raids, Kafkaesque officialdom and abductions.

The hidden room where the narrator conceals R recalls Anne Frank’s hiding place; the disappearances of objects and knowledge echo the lunacy of China’s Cultural Revolution, when doctors and teachers were punished for their learning. There is, however, just one direct reference to historical events. As novels disappear, the narrator recalls Heinrich Heine’s warning that “men who start by burning books end by burning other men” but cannot remember who said it.

The Memory Police was first published in Japan in 1994 but appears here in English for the first time in a crisp, limpid translation by Stephen Snyder, who has translated other work by Ogawa. It’s an interesting moment to choose, and British readers not aligned with the direction of travel at Westminster may see in this book, which is set on an island in the grip of permanent winter no longer connected to the outside world by ferry, a disturbing parable.

“People – and I’m no exception – seem capable of forgetting almost anything,” the narrator tells us, “much as if our island were unable to float in anything but an expanse of totally empty sea.”

But The Memory Police, which contains a novel within a novel in which a writer who has been kidnapped by her typing teacher slowly loses her voice and then herself, is about much more than politics. It is both a metaphor for the ageing process, with possibilities and faculties slowly chipped away, and an examination of the self.

R tells the narrator that her soul will die if she doesn’t continue to write novels. Throughout the book, she struggles to write – to find her voice – and to claw back the disappeared things.

“I remembered. The pages of the book had opened and fluttered through the air just the way ‘birds’ had once spread their wings and flown off to distant places. But this memory, too, was soon erased by the flames, leaving behind nothing but burning night.”

Meanwhile, the writer in her novel, locked away in a clocktower surrounded by broken typewriters, is on the point of disintegration. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, she has lost the power to resist, viewing her end and the erasure of her voice with sanguinity. “It must feel like a typewriter key falling back into place after rising for a moment to strike the page.”

The Memory Police is exquisitely crafted, and the beauty of the prose highlights the starkness of its vision. For if this book has a message, it is that the bitterest enemy is not the jackbooted Fascist but our own friable selves. Making a delivery to R’s wife, the narrator is spooked not by the police but her own imaginings.

“The snow was so perfect and untouched that it was almost frightening to disturb it, and I found myself unable to resist turning around to see whether my footsteps were following me as I made my way across the field of white.”