The memory police

They took the roses apart themselves, ripping them from their stems and casting the petals on the waters. Silently, purposefully. It was tragic, gardens shaped by decades of love and care destroyed in a moment, yet the people showed little emotion. The roses had to go, they were disappearing from their memories and soon they wouldn’t even be able to tell you what a rose was. Nor smell it, nor even feel the prick of its thorns.

Except for the one or two who still remembered, like her mother, who kept all these things in her cabinet. But those people were disappearing too.

The memory police saw to that.

This is a very disturbing book in what might have felt like a very Japanese way. Except reading it in 2020, when so much is being taken away from us for our own health and safety, it felt universal: and even more chilling.

The rememberers have to go into hiding. Rugs over floorboards, night flits, letters left at designated drops, the conundrum of getting enough food for two into a household of one without being seen, the worry that you/they won’t come back in time to refresh the water and take the waste away, so the person in that tiny space won’t waste away for good, unremembered.

Sometimes, all those efforts are in vain; the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the heavy boots on the stairs, the windowless van.

But the people adapt, to a smaller world with fewer things to name, to taste, touch and smell. It’s probably worse for the ones who remember, in their tiny spaces with nowhere to go and little to do, cleaning obsessively, relying on routines, inventing tasks, until they get dug up and locked up or give up.

To say much more would be to take away the shock that comes. Let’s just say it gets worse, and if lockdown already got you down, maybe don’t put this on your holiday reading list – to be fair, it’s not a beach read, but then this isn’t exactly a beach holiday year, is it?

And gosh, it’s well written.

Yoko Ogawa wrote The Memory Police in 1994, Steven Snyder translated it from Japanese last year, and you can see why it made the 2020 International Booker shortlist. It comes out in paperback on 6 August – and on 26 August 2020, I hope it wins.

It’s Women in Translation Month of course, too; in the last year, three quarters of the translated texts I’ve written about have been by women anyway, since books by men have to be really good for me to bother these days. There is just so much wonderful writing by women out there that I want to read. I hope that this August, you enjoy doing the same.

Translator, editor, writer, reader

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Posted in books, Man Booker 2013, translation, Women in Translation Month

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