Yoko Ogawa’s new novel takes us to a Japanese island where things keep disappearing: ribbons, birds, musical instruments, fruit. People, too, are at the mercy of the Memory Police, an efficient lot hunting for those who can’t shake off their memories. Each disappearance involves not just getting rid of the physical object, but also of every trace of it in everyone’s mind. The unnamed narrator’s mother is among the disappeared, but things she collected remain in the house where the daughter still lives, writing novels about people losing something. ‘Everyone likes that sort of thing,’ she says of her books, as if to imply that every island has the writers it deserves.
It’s tempting to see the book as a remake of Nineteen Eighty-Four, although here the regime is more humane: there are no betrayals or torture, and brainwashing is not entirely the fault of the police. One thing that has miraculously survived is the process whereby an author and an editor sit down together to go over a manuscript. The most important person in the narrator’s life is R, her editor, another hoarder of memories, and after a new crackdown she hides him in her home. Is it to save him, or to be able to continue writing novels? Does she need R as a reader, a source of memories or merely as a lover?
The community grows poorer with every disappearance, but people quickly get used to these ‘cavities’, replacing or simply ignoring them. When photographs are banished, for instance, the heroine says that they are ‘nothing more than pieces of paper’. It’s a self-perpetuating process: memories of things fade, leaving everyone more immune to each next loss. The novel that the narrator is writing, meanwhile, begins with a typist losing her voice and gradually acquires more and more shades of grey.
And then (you guessed it) novels disappear too. The act of flinging books into the fire resembles an avant-garde performance: ‘The pages had caught the breeze, and it fluttered as it flew, as if dancing on air.’ With novels gone, words become ‘just characters on the manuscript page’, and eventually the line between real and imaginary losses is no more. Like the heroine of the novel within, who ‘lacked courage to rejoin the outside world’, the narrator remains in a prison of her own making.
In Stephen Snyder’s fluid translation, the names of vanished things are sometimes italicised, sometimes put in quotation marks. The things themselves are sometimes completely forgotten, sometimes not. In one scene, the police check people’s IDs, scrutinising the photos, even though they should have been burned by now. When it comes to human memory, it seems, no one — not even those trying to police it — can ever remember everything.