Focus on The Memory Police - International Booker 2020

Large the memory police

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year for a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. It aims to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction from all over the world and to promote the work of translators.

The full shortlist of six titles can be found here, but in this series of articles we will look at each title in detail.

The Memory Police

A compelling speculative mystery by one of Japan’s greatest writers. Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning.

It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police.

Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed. When a young novelist discovers that her editor is in danger of being taken away by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him.

For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories.

Who knows what will vanish next? The Memory Police is a beautiful, haunting and provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, from one of Japan’s greatest writers.

Found in Translation

About the group

Found in Translation was created when long-time friends Rae and Helen met in a café in Birmingham in March 2019 and started talking about books and book groups. Helen was currently not a member of a book group, so they decided to start a group together. Keen to have a theme to structure the group around, they chose ‘fiction in translation’ as an opportunity to read more work from writers working in other languages and cultures. They meet once a month.

Thoughts on the book

Four of us met by a Whatsapp video call to discuss The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder. This was our first virtual meeting and we met for about an hour. We’ve found – especially since moving to virtual meetings during the pandemic – that our discussion often continues in an ad-hoc way in the days after the meeting, with members sharing links to interviews or articles, as well as the occasional additional thought or reflection a member has had after the initial discussion.

Some of our thoughts and questions raised during our discussion:

  • We were all struck by the beauty of the writing. Ogawa’s style is spare and elegant. The book was engrossing from the outset with beautiful and poignant descriptions of life on the island, and we shared some passages or lines that had stuck with us while reading. Without having read the book in the original Japanese, we felt that Snyder’s translation was very well-executed and complemented the style and narrative.
  • Neither the narrator nor any of the main characters are named, being referenced to instead by an initial® or physical characteristics (the old man). Do these lack of names relate to the disappearances at all, or are they a way of protecting against disappearance?
  • The lack of names, as well as the disappearances themselves, lent both a timeless and otherworldly feel of the book. It was difficult to tell when – or where – exactly the novel takes place. We were all very much interested to know more about the world the unnamed narrator inhabits. They live on an island, but do the disappearances only happen on the island or do they take place on the mainland as well? Why are the disappearances happening? How do they work in a practical sense? When did they start? Who are the Memory Police? And what happens next?
  • Some of our discussion focused on the narrator’s current and remembered relationships with those around her: her family members, the old man and her editor. This led to a discussion of the narrator’s experience of forgetting while someone she loves remembers, and to the experience of living in a world where everyone else around you has forgotten. Some of us felt that it was a profoundly sad thought, but if all feeling and sense of loss over the disappearances is removed, then who is actually affected most by a disappearance? On reflection, whom do we feel most empathy for as readers: those who are doomed to forget or those who are cursed to remember?
  • We discussed the book as a possible allegory for dementia, and the way one can forget seemingly ingrained ideas and objects and all memory around these ideas or objects, while those around you insist that they did once exist and mean something to you. We talked about this potential allegory at length, considering different aspects of the narrative and characters and how they could fit within this reading of the book. How does one retain a sense of self or identity when they start to forget everything around and about themselves?
  • We discussed the meaning of the materiality of the disappearances, taking a common metaphor to a very literal conclusion. The items that disappear are sometimes mundane (a specific sweet), sometimes vital (a body part), but the loss of each item is experienced in the same way. We considered how this might relate to the trauma of loss and our natural ability to forget items or events from the past and what we might ‘choose’ to forget.
  • Another point of discussion was related to the destruction of one’s life’s work. This is the case early on, but continues as a theme throughout the novel in both a literal and conceptual way with the narrator herself dwelling on this idea. Is our purpose rooted in our work and passions or in our connections to those around us?
  • If one of us gets a chance, we often search for and share writing around our chosen books, such as author interviews or critical literature. In the case of The Memory Police, it led to a discussion about the length of time between the original publication in Japan (1994) and the translation into English (2019). We wondered why, after 25 years, this time was chosen for translation. Do readers approach the text in a different way during this particular political and global moment? While the book has a timeless quality, did we read the book differently or make different connections thinking it had been written now versus 25 years ago?

We also spent some time at the end discussing the experience of taking part in prize shadowing the International Booker Prize. This was our first time shadowing a prize and we felt privileged to be able to take part in an event like this and connected to literature and readers across the country in a different way.

Get involved

Have you read The Memory Police? Do you want to know what other readers thought? Leave your own review online.

Want to know more? Download a Readers’ Guide for The Memory Police, including information about the author, as well as some discussion notes and themed reading.

Find out about the other books on the shortlist.


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