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Somewhere out there in a place no one knows: Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and the literature of forgetting


Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police was published in Japanese in 1994. Since the release of its first English translation in 2019, the text has attracted a handful of responses from English literary scholars. Most of these focus on the novel’s allegorical potential in relation to issues of totalitarianism and collectively enforced memory loss—as evocative, for example, of the Orwellian dystopia, or the state silencing of radiation victims in Japan. Ogawa’s text depicts inhabitants of an unnamed island as they suffer a series of ‘disappearances’. At the same time on arbitrary days, they forget about things like birds, hats, roses, sucking sweets and music boxes, eventually losing the ability to control various parts of their own bodies. In this world, the Memory Police are a militarised collective that remove all traces of ‘disappeared objects’ and ruthlessly disposes of islanders whose forgetting lapses. While my essay does not aim to displace existing readings of the text, it does suggest that these might be supplemented by a recognition of the aspects of Ogawa’s writing that evoke processes of biological individual forgetting—and, more specifically, the neurodegenerative course of dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease. An appreciation of the novel’s fertility, I argue, might be heightened by reading The Memory Police, for example, as strangely resemblant of neurofibrillary plaques and amyloid tangles or by imagining the island itself as an image of the gradually fading Alzheimer’s-infected brain. In the paper that follows, I consider The Memory Police alongside a collection of texts from what might be called a ‘literature of forgetting’—Thomas DeBaggio’s Losing My Mind, David Shenk’s The Forgetting, Nicci Gerrard’s What Dementia Teaches Us about Love and others—in an attempt to draw out some of their eerie resonances with Ogawa’s island.

  • dementia
  • metaphor
  • comparative literature studies
  • literature and medicine
  • patient narratives

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