Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Published by Vintage, 2019, 288 pages. Original version published in 1994.
“‘Things go on disappearing, one by one. … It doesn’t hurt, and you won’t even be particularly sad. One morning you’ll simply wake up and it will be over, before you’ve even realized. … People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. … But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days. Soon enough, things are back to normal, as though nothing has happened, and no one can even recall what it was that disappeared.’”
On an unnamed Japanese island, things are disappearing: emeralds, ribbons, bells, stamps, birds, photographs. Soon the people forget they even existed, except for a few who are unable to forget and try to salvage the disappeared things. The mother of the unnamed narrator, a novelist, is one such person. She pays for it—one day, the Memory Police come to take her away, and the narrator never sees her again.
Because none of the disappearances are natural occurrences. They are being orchestrated by a nebulous power—a dictatorship of some kind, although that is never clear. The Memory Police are the enforcers of this power, scouring the island for those who can’t forget.
The book the novelist is working on is an echo of the situation on the island. It is about a young typist and her teacher. Under his influence, she gradually loses her voice and can only communicate by typing. But when her typewriter breaks down, the teacher lures her to a room in the tower under the pretext of repairing it. He imprisons her in that room filled with broken typewriters.
The one person the novelist trusts completely with her work is her editor, R. But he is, like her mother, someone who is unable to forget. Worried that he will meet the same fate as her mother, she decides to hide him in her home, with the help of an old man who was married to her nurse. But it isn’t easy hiding a man under the eyes of the Memory Police. And how long can she hang on when everything around her is vanishing into thin air?
The way the book is written is almost like a fable. Most of the characters do not have names, as if they were insubstantial. It is about the loss of memory, a loss so deep that looking at a disappeared object brings no spark of recognition. It is also about a loss of identity, of the loss of control over our innermost selves. Our memories make us who are and if they start to dissipate and vanish, then who are we? This haunting book stayed with me for a while after I had finished reading it.
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