This book was recommended by my friend whose compass for good books points true north. Hence, I went into the book expecting great prose and an unusual narrative. I was surprised, but not pleasantly. Everything from the typography of the book to the cover itself hints that this book is not your usual cup of tea. It has moments that make it sublime, but then there were others that were too dark for me to handle.
The story begins on an island in Japan where things are slowly disappearing. Not vanishing-into-thin-air-disappearances, rather, systematic erasures so that there are no foot-prints of their existence left. First, they are smaller objects that do not truly affect the ‘quotidian life’ but they are terrified because it is unusual (to say the least). There is almost a ceremony around saying goodbye to the object that has disappeared. The memory police are there to make sure that all that has been ordered to be forgotten is truly erased.
There are those who do not feel the loss since they do not have memories attached to it anymore. Each time something disappears, so do the memories and emotions attached to them. Hence, the idea of relevance is brushed by Ogawa in this sophisticated way.
She has created a microcosm of a world in the novel in the form of the story that the protagonist is writing since she is an author. One expects the book to explain the purpose of it but alas, that does not happen. The book gives you the impression that it will elaborate on the relevance behind this phenomenon, of an evil conspiracy or an experiment gone wrong, but nothing. The author gives you nothing. No justification or reasoning. Instead, the book revolves around how the fear of the ‘memory police’, as well as the complacency of the daily predictable life, has lulled people into not bothering with the disappearances and just treating it as an inconvenience.
Death is discussed in terms of decay. What is the meaning of life if one cannot control what they remember? It especially hit me hard because of my current context of living through the lockdown in Toronto, Ontario. We have been under lockdown on and off for almost a year now. There are certain things like theatre, live music, museums, and exhibitions that have been closed for so long that it feels like they are fading away from our memory. Their significance, their power, and even their relevance seem to be fading away, as if the memories have already passed away and the empty structures are decaying because of the lack of use. I believe that is why I found the end of the book disturbing.
Yōko Ogawa explores the relationship between memory and existence by unravelling one from the other. The novel is almost like the documentation of what happens when this phenomenon occurs. The way it is written and the pace of the novel is perfect and one does not want to put it down. It is a mystery that turns in on itself by revealing that the reader or rather the characters are trying to solve the wrong problem all along. But I would suggest that one marks this as a post-pandemic (hopefully soon) read.