An unnamed young novelist lives on an unnamed island where integral aspects of daily life are disappearing one by one. With each disappearance people’s memories of those objects also vanish. The Memory Police is a fascist brigade which enforce these disappearances by overseeing the deliberate destruction of any remaining objects —hats, birds, roses, ribbons, perfumes etc — and capturing the very few people who continue to remember them. When the novelist fears that her respected editor is next to be taken away she decides to take action to save him with the help of an old man who was once the ferryman… when ferries still existed.
First published in Japan in 1994, and published for the first time in English in 2019, The Memory Police is written in a quiet prose, all the more frightening for its terrifying subject matter. Perhaps the most affecting aspect of the losses endured is the docility with which the island’s residents react to them, and the calm acceptance of inevitable future disappearances, even as they lose more and more of themselves with each one.
Like much of the best speculative fiction, The Memory Police is an allegory for our current existence. It warns of the perilous nature of totalitarian states, but I feel it is also a lament for other precious items that have vanished or are in danger of vanishing from this world: animal species, forests, languages, customs, ways of life etc. And perhaps finally, it is also a meditation on ageing and death. For the latter parts of our lives are littered with losses of friends, family, capabilities, health and finally of life itself.
A very powerful and affecting work by one of Japan’s foremost writers.