Thursday, March 19, 2020

Nothing but absences and holes

"What will happen?" he murmured.

"I mean, things are disappearing more quickly than they are being created, right?" I asked him.

He nodded and furrowed his brow, like someone suffering from a headache.

"What can the people on this island create?" I went on. "A few kinds of vegetables, cars that constantly break down, heavy, bulky stoves, some half-starved stock animals, oily cosmetics, babies, the occasional simple play, books no one reads... Poor, unreliable things that will never make up for those that are disappearing — and the energy that goes along with them. It's subtle but it seems to be speeding up, and we have to watch out. If it goes on like this and we can't compensate for the things that get lost, the island will soon be nothing but absences and holes, and when it's completely hollowed out, we'll all disappear without a trace. Don't you ever feel that way?"
The Memory Police, by Yoko Ogawa, is described as an Orwellian dystopia. The premise is that, in this closed island community, things — objects — are disappeared from their reality overnight. One day it's birds, another roses.

The Memory Police enforce these bans, and take away anyone found to be preserving "banned" objects. They also search out genetic anomalies, those few people that for reasons unknown retain the capability to remember things that have been disappeared.

While I love the idea of this book, I found this to be an incredibly frustrating read. I haven't read Ogawa before. This is one of her earlier novels (1994) only just recently translated into English; I can only hope her writing has matured since then.

Neither the reason behind or the mechanism for the disappearances is ever explained. Why one thing and not another? There is no warning or proclamation (although the narrator later claims to have premonitions). Citizens simply wake up and know what it is that's being removed from their lives. They don't need instructions; they simply dispose of those things. I don't mind a bit a magic hand-waving, but it doesn't hold internal consistency.

For example, in the past, boats and ferries disappeared but the physical objects remained — only the concept was undone. These masses continued to exist at the river's edge (the old man lives on his stalled ferry), but the idea that they could be used as transport or floating recreation is gone. By contrast, calendars later disappear, and the island inhabitants duly dispose of the their agendas and desk props, yet people continue to track time and mark days (if a little less precisely).

How does the narrator remember things well enough to write about them disappearing? Though the novel starts with her memory of her mother, who preserved lost objects and clearly wanted to convey their importance to her daughter, it took me a few chapters to understand that the narrator was not one of the gifted (perhaps using a third-person omniscient narrator would've made this clearer). Fruit disappears but they persist in images and in her descriptions.

It's suggested that when we run out of memories, we will have nothing left to talk about. Is that all that connects us? A common past? A commonly agreed-upon past?

And why doesn't the old man have a name? Even the dog has name. The neighbour has a name. Is this a commentary on the namelessness of the things closest to us? That a name can't contain what he was? But, "the old man" is also an inadequate label that becomes cumbersome and even silly.

Officials are, unsurprisingly, privileged. One bureaucrat serves our narrator a strange, bitter tea that keeps her awake that night — for some reason he has access to coffee, which has apparently vanished. But at the end of the novel, it seems they too may be subject to the laws behind the disappearances.

Then there's the matter of R.
"He's my editor. The first person who reads my work. He's the friend who knows the self that I put in my novels better than anyone else."
It's deeply unsettling that she should build a secret room in her house, where he's meant to stay forever. There are indications that he is capable of remembering, but why is the need she feels to protect R so deep? Does he ask for help? No, in fact, he's confused by it. Why does he suddenly change his mind and decide to leave his pregnant wife. Her argument was not particularly compelling. Her motivation, to keep him as her editor, is entirely selfish. And why is the planned disappearance so elaborate? Could they not simply have had a collegial meeting from which he never returned? And despite the sudden raids the Memory Police are known to make, it seems unnecessary to confine him to the room at all times.

She is clearly in love with him. His editing abilities are a pretext for this kidnapping. Unless, knowing it's impossible to hold on to forgotten objects or to remember them, she feels the next best thing is to hold on to someone who can.

Her treatment of him is cruel and unusual. When his baby is born, she withholds the news for hours. Yet I have the distinct sense that we are supposed to feel sympathetic toward her, even to cheer on the possibility of romance. I can't tell if that's masterly writing or simply chaotic.

Her manuscript in progress is also disturbing, and it is in many ways the opposite of her lived reality. The novel is about woman who loses her voice and resorts to typing to communicate with her lover, who was her typing teacher.
For a long time I have wanted to watch him in the act of typing. It must be very beautiful to see. The glittering, carefully maintained machine, the snow-white paper, his perfectly straight back, his expertly placed fingers. The very thought of it makes me sigh. But I've never seen him type. Even now that we have become lovers. He never types in front of other people.
Eventually her typewriter breaks; he tricks her and keeps her captive. He absorbed her voice, and later the rest of her fades away.

Writing becomes particularly difficult for our narrator when novels are disappeared. The manuscript, even when her writing is stalled, is a creation out of nothing. The opposite of disappearing.
"How does it feel to remember everything? To have everything that the rest of us have lost saved up in your heart?"

"That's a difficult question," he said, using his forefinger to push up the frames of his glasses and then leaving his hand at his throat.

"I'd imagine you'd be uncomfortable, with your heart full of so many forgotten things."

"No, that's not really a problem. A heart has no shape, no limits. That's why you can put almost any kind of thing in it, why it can hold so much. It's much like your memory, in that sense."
Everything that disappears is burned or goes into the sea. Not much is created to replace what's lost. Except snow. It seems the snow will never disappear. The snow is one big blanket of forgetting. It also feels like a metaphor for something.

Perhaps I didn't approach this book with the right state of mind. I typically embrace ambiguity and surreal effects, but this novel's construction feels haphazard.

We shouldn't have to destroy the old to make way for the new. Body parts begin to disappear. What purpose does that serve? What does it make room for?
"If we do remember something," said the old man, struggling to find words, "what do we do then?"

"Nothing in particular. We're all free to do as we choose with our own memories," R said.

"I suppose memories live here and there in the body," the old man said, moving his hand from his chest to the top of his head. "But they're invisible, aren't they? And no matter how wonderful the memory, it vanishes if you leave it alone, if no one pays attention to it. They leave no trace, no evidence that they ever existed."
I struggle also to understand why it's so wrong to relinquish the past, particularly in its material aspects. Why not live entirely in the now?

Chapter 1
Chapter 2

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