How does it feel to remember everything?

Excerpt from The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

Photo by Keith Chan on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder.

“May I ask you something?” I said, still looking at him.

“Of course,” he answered.

“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.”

“So you have everything inside you that has disappeared from the island?”

“I’m not sure about everything. Memories don’t just pile up—they also change over time. And sometimes they fade of their own accord. Though the process, for me, is quite different from what happens to the rest of you when something disappears from the island.”

“Different how?” I asked, rubbing my fingernails.

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even as they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

He chose his words carefully, as though weighing each one on his tongue before pronouncing it.

“I sometimes wonder what I’d see if I could hold your heart in my hands,” I told him. “I imagine it fitting perfectly in my palms, soft and slippery, like gelatin that hasn’t quite set. It might wobble at the slightest touch, but I sense I’d need to hold it carefully, so it wouldn’t slip through my fingers. I also imagine the warmth of the thing. It’s usually hidden deep inside so it’s much warmer than the rest of me. I close my eyes and sink into that warmth, and when I do, the sensations of all the things that have disappeared come back to me. I can feel all the things you remember, there in my hands. Doesn’t that sound marvelous?”

“Would you really like to remember all the things you’ve lost?” R asked.

I told him the truth. “I don’t know. Because I don’t even know what it is I should be remembering. What’s gone is gone completely. I have no seeds inside me, waiting to sprout again. I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes. That’s why I’m jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tantalizingly transparent and yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.”

“When I read your novels, I never imagine that your heart is hollow.”

“But you have to admit that it’s difficult to be a writer on this island. Words seem to retreat further and further away with each disappearance. I suspect the only reason I’ve been able to go on writing is that I’ve had your heart by my side all along.”

“If that’s true then I’m glad,” R said.

I turned my palms up and held them out. Then we stared at them for a time, without so much as blinking, as though I were actually holding something in my hands. But no matter how hard we looked, it was painfully clear that they were empty.

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The Memory Police – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses—until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten.

When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovers that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.

A surreal, provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss, The Memory Police is a stunning new work from one of the most exciting contemporary authors writing in any language.

Copyright © 1994 by Yōko Ogawa.

Translated by: Stephen Snyder

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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