The surrealist Japanese novel that predicted our current cultural amnesia is now available in English.
Originally published in Japanese in 1994, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police is a dystopian tale of struggle against state censorship as the world around the central character begins to literally disappear. Although the book is decades old, it has only grown more apposite as countries around the world expand mass surveillance efforts and feed citizens false information. Today, August 13, Ogawa’s canonical novel makes its tragically timely English debut. Ogawa—a household name in Japan, and winner of the prestigious Akutagawa and Shirley Jackson prizes among others—has been steadily breaking into the American literary scene; one translation at a time. Despite The Memory Police initially being published over 20 years ago, Ogawa’s “fantasy dystopia” is one of those rare works of fiction that can help us better understand the world we currently live in, according to its translator Dr. Stephen Snyder, Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College.
“I don’t think that Yoko was particularly commenting on Japanese society in this text,” says Snyder, who first worked with Ogawa when he translated her short story “Pregnancy Diary” for The New Yorker in 2005, “…there certainly are ways in which there’s a collective amnesia, for instance, about the [events leading up to] the Second World War; [but] this is much more similar to totalitarian society; [for example] the Stalinist deletion of people who had been eliminated. [Stalin’s Communist Party of the Soviet Union] would redact photographs and eliminate figures who had been murdered or been removed from the political spectrum. So [Ogawa] may be using those kinds of gestalts to figure out exactly what kind of world she was depicting. I also think she was depicting Nazi Germany as well and [the Nazi Party’s similarly] dramatic deletion of people and things.”
Snyder explains that Ogawa has previously invoked and responded to the power of The Diary of Anne Frank in her work, but the diary’s influence is most explicit in The Memory Police. “[Ogawa] has talked about [The Memory Police] as, in some ways, her most direct response to the kind of horrors that Anne Frank depicts in her work,” he says. “You see that clearly in the hidden room [a critical location in the book] and in the continuation of daily life. The power of humor and family and constructed family that [Ogawa describes in The Memory Police] are in many ways similar to The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Snyder characterizes today’s English translation of Ogawa’s 1994 book as “really ironic in a sense,” given that totalitarianism is once again rearing its grisly head. The renewed relevance of this 23-year-old book should scare us all. It’s a reminder that we are, at least in part, failing to learn from and thus failing to prevent repetition of grotesque historical events. The Memory Police was already a Japanese classic—it is now also, unfortunately, an ominous commentary on our present path to grave mistakes.
‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa is available from Penguin Random House.