Review of “The Memory Police” by Yoko Ogawa

This novel was written in 1994 but not translated to English until 2019, so this is a hybrid like other novels I’ve reviewed by Japanese authors. The translator did a very good job, however, and it reads very easily. The sentences are mostly very short, which conveys the sense of hopelessness that dominates the novel. The narrator tells the story in the first-person past tense, which is curious considering how the book ends.

The author uses a very clever technique to tell the story in two separate threads within one novel, with separate protagonists dealing with antagonists who steal their identities through a series of exhausting tribulations. This is a story about the hopelessness of fighting to stay alive in a confusing world. It can be interpreted as either a commentary on postmodern society or personal depression. It carries both messages equally well, at least to me. I lean slightly toward depression myself. It was a very depressing story.

The author does an excellent job getting inside the head of the main narrator (shall I say “outer character?”). However, there isn’t much there, just an inevitable spiral into resignation and submission to the unknowable void. Even a brave act of rebellion turns out to have neither meaning nor chance of success. The nameless heroine is representative of the world depicted in the story, a world with no names for places or people, where fatalism rules and those who resist are swept up by the “Memory Police” or go into hiding for the rest of their lives.

This book was classified as science fiction, but I would call it either fantasy or a horror story. Although it has some similarities to “Brave New World” or “1984,” it is more like “Animal Farm.” The plot is simply too fantastical to interpret as being anything but a metaphorical twist on social problems like alienation and depression.

As a science fiction story, “Memory Police” is a failure, but it is successful as a social commentary expressed by a likable, if simpleminded, narrator.

But I couldn’t take too much of it at a time. It’s that much of a downer…

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