The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 2 February 2023

The Memory Police

Hello Gentle Reader,

Winter is an authoritarian season. One of complex contradictions. A reduction and redaction of daylight. Long shadows and lengthening nights prevail. In turn there is the whiteout of snow blanketing and highlighting the world. The landscape changes beneath the weight of the snow. Roads, driveways, streets, alleys become impassable, treacherous to traverse, and altered in function. Mounds of snow pile up along embankments and curbs. Trees take on a menacing and clawed visage, gnarled branches framing a cataract white sky. The way the snow settles reshapes and reforms the world; hills become mountains, lawns and trails disappear. Just as the other seasons have their function, so too does winter. The spring melt provides necessary water to the spring seeding. The dormant plants are renewed and restful for the coming spring and summer, and if those two seasons remains amicable with both rain and heat, the autumns harvest will be bountiful in turn. Each season in turn brings their own charm. The rejuvenating green of spring buds, the thaw and warmth spreading throughout. Summer blossoming into a brilliant showcase and bouquet of flowers, greenery, and light. Those days long with a sense of never-ending charm. Summer always comes across as the eternal season, but even it burns out. As summers days die down into the ruminating coals, autumn takes flight. Dressed in golds, reds, oranges, yellows, and browns, autumn brings the feast through the harvest. Autumn’s regalia wears down as all the bright and brilliance falls away. What’s left are the barren brown husks of dormant trees. Fields reduced to a stubble. The days recede and before long that gravestone grey of November begins to hang over the days and haunt the nights. Yet as the year unwinds there remains a glimmer of hope in December, as the days turn their shortest and the nights their longest and darkest, there is the glint and sparkle of Christmas lights twinkling down streets and within windows. Despite its follies, its rampant consumerist propagation, there’s a certain splendor and decadence to the Christmas season. The lights become beacons of festivities, pushing back the shadows of the deepening dark of winter. January as a hangover month fills the space with endless sweeping shadows and frostbitten winds. Still, we persevere through January into February on the green dreams of spring; the memory of enchanting summer heats; the regalia of autumns bounty and bonfires; before we return to the sparkling lights of Decembers celebrations. Yet, if the seasons fell out of order or lapsed and disregarded the cycle of their natural order, what would an eternal and endless winter be? In Ogawa Yōko’s parable novel “The Memory Police,” an endless winter comes to settle over an unnamed and isolated island after calendars are sacrificed in another act of disappearing. This in turn means dates, history, and the seasonal cycle become obsolete in turn, and winter settles in as permanent season. The whiteout affects of the snow falling and replacing the dirty snow, recalls a landscape on the verge of being redacted and obfuscated in turn, as the snow continues to pile up.

“The Memory Police,” is one of Ogawa Yōko’s first novels. Originally published in 1994, after more then two decades it has finally been translated and published into English. Despite the gap between publications, “The Memory Police,” gained further prominence for its publication being just before the pandemic and then seen as a metaphorical resonance of the changing landscape caused by health orders and restrictions to curve and circumvent the virus. Daily life was immediately usurped. Changes to the simple and most mundane components of life altered and changed. Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” provides a dystopian parable of what happens when the normal routines and confines of daily life are slowly eroded by measures far beyond the individuals control. Inspired by Anne Franks Diary, Ogawa’s “The Memory Police,” follows in a similar fashion of individuals finding refugee in hiding as an authoritarian atmosphere takes hold of normal life. This in turn has meant that “The Memory Police,” is compared to other famous dystopian anti-authoritarian novels, such as George Orwell’s “1984,” or Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” Yet, Ogawa’s novel shares greater kinship to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” or the twisted dark parables of Jose Saramago, such as his novel: “Blindness.” On this unnamed island there is a phenomenon simply known as the disappearing, whereby unknown decree or force, objects, items, and their associative memory are erased from the public consciousness. Citizens of the island accept the fate with alarming acceptance, though even they are perplexed by the choices. When roses have disappeared, residents comply by digging and ripping up their rose bushes. Afterwards the notion of roses having existed slowly evaporates. This scene is poignant, as the river runs with the spectrum of roses, from pink, to red, to white, their petals drift down the river into oblivion.

Early in the novel, the unnamed narrator remembers a scene with her mother, who not only archives and retains lost and forgotten objects, but also remembers their names and applications. For the narrator, however, these objects are foreign and alien, and can only be described via rudimentary and almost childlike language. Soft things. Beautiful things. Furry things. Small things. They can only be summarized as things. The mother provides a treatise on the objects and their applications. Perfume for instance, she laments the loss of their tender scents and beautiful bottles. While the narrator’s childhood self can only see a clear liquid, having no sense of smell to discern anything special. Emeralds in turn are turned over in one’s hands with beautiful satisfaction. The enchanting green stone brilliant and beautiful, but now forgotten, worthless, and lost. Other objects being lost are utilitarian in scope such as hats and boats, which inevitably means the milliner (hatmaker) and ferry operator are unemployed or redeployed to new careers, as their functions to the world no longer exist. While other disappeared objects are more mundane in nature such as ribbons. Then comes the haunting romantic ones, which provide clarity to how far reaching the redactions of memory can go, and to what extent items are obliged to disappear. When birds are deemed surplus to requirement, they are removed from the island. This includes not just physical living, singing, and flying birds, but all studies of birds, photographs, articles, books, drawings, recordings, films et cetera. The narrator’s father was an ornithologist, who thankfully is dead before his life’s work and area of study slips into the abyss. Birds maintain an associative meaning as well in turn. They represent flight and freedom. Their sudden and usual unexplained absence cements the already established suffocating claustrophobia of the island, which has now erased the notion of escape be it ferry, boat, or flight from the inhabitant’s mind, entrapping them on the island.

The titular memory police are an ambient threat. They enter and exist within the novel as a customary component of life on the island. Their neat uniforms complete with green fur lined collar coats and matching green trucks with canvas tarps roaming up and down streets, their impassible and expressionless faces, and their occupation of an old theatre as their headquarters, have them cemented as a mere facet of reality, however mundane and unpleasant all the same. They exist in the background only coming to attention when they’re operational or visible. This often means rounding up people who dissent by being able to still remember or have been discovered providing refugee to dissidents or retaining contraband items which have been disappeared. Their menace is more bureaucratic in nature, encompassing the notion of the banality of evil. When the narrator’s mother is taken by the memory police, the threat of the inevitable is glossed over by how nice the car is, and their pleasant demeanor as if they were escorting her mother on a holiday trip. It is only later when there is the observation of watching others round up into the canvas trucks and transported away is the threat of violence more palpable.

Despite the sensation of dread and violence in parallel with the increasingly bizarre acts of disappearances, Ogawa Yōko creates a multilayered novel, encompassing a multifaceted version of what existence is like on the island. The mundane elements of cooking, shopping, eating, and meeting under such increasingly bizarre circumstances, become rituals of survival as well as dissidence. Grocery shopping takes on new dimensions of horrors, as food becomes increasingly scarce and rations are instituted with tighter and tighter austerity measures. Yet the ability to bake a cake, celebrate a birthday, enjoy a meal, become acts of inspirational hope while clinging to the meager sense of normalcy. Then comes the fact that the unnamed narrator is also a writer (or novelist) in turn. Her books are in turn inflected with loss and disappearances, including her current novel, where a typist becomes trapped by her typing insturctor and looses her voice. Then there is the relationship between herself, her editor, and the old man. Her editor is one such individual who has the innate ability to retain their memories after the shared severance has taken place. To shelter him, the narrator, and the old man, create a new room in the house to hold and safeguard the editor, where he will remain in hiding from the machinations and authority of the memory police. This is done without any political inclination or messaging. The motivations of the narrator are merely out of altruism, and perhaps a sense of romance which is never acted upon. Unfortunately, details are added, and vague plot lines are added within the various stories of “The Memory Police,” but ironically are lost or evaporate, and are never finished, remaining loose. Yet as the novel progresses further memories are severed, further reductions are created in society, and in turn they become increasingly more twisted and Beckettian in their absurdism. Finally, the novel ends the only way it can. As more and more whiteouts take place, more and more holes and gaps begin to expand and widen, soon there can be nothing left to erase.

The publication of Ogawa Yōko’s “The Memory Police,” has been considered politically timely by some. The comparisons that Ogawa’s novel has with other dystopian  novels such as Orwell’s “1984,” or Atwood’s “The Handmaids Tale,” are rather misplaced and even superficial in their association. Ogawa’s work is not as palpable or as forewarning as Orwell’s work or Atwood’s novels. “The Memory Police,” is more closely related to Anne Frank’s Diary for its interest in capturing a sense of ambient dread and banal evil through the mundane, but also living within the confines of a space which continues to shrink both physically and metaphorically. This is the space that both the editor and the inhabitants of the island face. Their physical reality and their interactions, perspectives, associative meanings, and memories of the world become increasingly confined through the confiscation and termination of memories. For the editor the space becomes even more reduced when he’s forced to find sanctuary within a makeshift room, further isolated from the world. The novel also has no political message intended; it has no antiauthoritarian significance beyond the superficial elements of a group of people being oppressed, yet its more Kafkaesque and Beckettian then its revolutionary or explicitly political. Ogawa is not criticizing any political faction or providing any palpable forewarning to the dangers of the resurrected extremism being exhibited by the far-right and the far-left. Rather the novel is parabolic in structure, being less inclined to provide any particular meaning and instead envisioning how one lives within such trying and impossible circumstances. Memory (to no surprise) is a focal theme of this novel, its both torturous curse and the very ethereal element providing meaning to our lives. Its importance to how we interact, understand, perceive, and live in the world should not be abandoned or severed with casual ease. Ogawa Yōko’s ability to remain enigmatic and ambiguous with political stances is a testament to her work being more concerned with more abstract themes and elements of the human condition, while avoiding the pitfalls of the explicitly political. If I were to leverage any criticism against the novel it would be the language itself. Ogawa is renowned for her blanc prose. Its bleached and minimal, best described as being a still pond only slightly rippled with the disturbance of action, though it tends to take on a very still and lulling lyricism. Yet, there were times when the language came across exaggeratedly metaphorical, especially during emotional moments, which caused the novel to veer towards the edge of melodramatics. When so much of the novel is written in such pristine unadorned prose this sudden wellspring of metaphorical and emotional language, often came across as obscene and disruptive. Despite this, in “The Memory Police,” Ogawa Yōko is already establishing the foundational elements of her long literary career, which includes dissertations on memory, service and caretaking, absence, loss, preservation and curatorship, the sense of dread and absurd, and claustrophobic spaces and landscapes. Here’s hoping Ogawa Yōko has more of her works translated into English now. She’s proven herself to be a singular talent and vision, one whose work grapple with the truly impermanence and amorphous unknown of the human condition, exposing the frailty of such systems, without being absorbed in political overtones. In that regard, it is imperative readers understand that “The Memory Police,” is only Orwellian in marketing nature, but absolutely but Kafkaesque for its exploration of the absurdity of the abyss of reality.

Thank-you for Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

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