I love the title The Memory Police, so I was happy to wait a long time for Yōko Ogawa‘s novel to show up at the library for me. So long in fact that I was able to read another of her books — The Housekeeper and The Professor — while waiting. This was turned out to be for the best, actually, to read the books in the order that they were written and in escalating order of complexity.
The Housekeeper and the Professor focuses on three characters, the two in the title and the housekeeper’s son. The professor of the title is an elderly award-winning mathematician, who can only remember the most recent 80 minutes of his life, due to a debilitating car accident. His housekeeper and her son come to learn a new way to love and to see the world in caring for this eternally-present professor. Ogawa weaves just enough math (like amicable numbers) into the conversation to give the reader a glimpse into the world of the professor and the newly opened mind of the housekeeper and her son affectionately called Root (because his haircut makes him look like the sign for square root).
There are no big conflicts and no huge reveals. Instead, there’s a trip to the doctor’s office, a baseball game, a birthday party, homework & haircuts, comfort food & household artifacts: just the kind of slowly evolving wisdom and daily blessings that an ordinary life can give to those fully present to & for one another.
The Memory Police is also a novel based around three people: a novelist, an old man neighbor of hers, and the novelist’s editor. It’s a much darker story & world than Housekeeper. They live in a devolving world, a world in which items are disappeared, destroyed, and forbidden by the memory police from reappearing. Calendars, harmonicas, roses, books. Ogawa offers no reason for the state-sponsored disappearances, so the novel takes on a quiet and powerful suspense. It’s political story clearly, about a state’s power to shape our stories & ourselves, but there’s no exposition scene, no single Memory Policeman who reveals the machinery behind the political rulers. For some readers that lack of motivation might be frustrating; for me, it meant that I really had to live as the characters lived–that is, with very limited knowledge & no way of digging deeper. As a result, the novel read like almost like a fable, and like a survival story, one in which the novelist hides her editor, who persists in remembering objects lost, thus endangering his life, and who lives in a kind of Anne Frank hidden room in the novelist’s house.
Both novels offer clear and stark lessons in memory and in the power of community, even the smallest of human interaction. They read fast, and they will linger long.