Somewhere Out There in a Place No One Knows: Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police and the Literature of Forgetting

Article Summary by John Henning

This essay reads Yoko Ogawa’s 1994 novel, The Memory Police, as a subtle allegory for the progression dementia and other neurological disorders. In Ogawa’s book, inhabitants of an unnamed island suffer a series of ‘disappearances’. At the same time on random days, they forget about things like birds, hats, roses, sucking sweets, and music boxes—eventually losing control over various parts of their bodies. In this world, a collective called the Memory Police remove all traces of ‘disappeared objects’ and ruthlessly dispose of islanders whose forgetting doesn’t follow the correct sequence. Since the release of its first English translation in 2019, the text has attracted a handful of interpretations from 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. While my essay does not aim to ‘disagree’ with these readings, it does suggest that they should not be considered exhaustive. To do this, 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:An Intimate Look at Life with Alzheimer’s, 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.

Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.


John Henning is reading towards a Master of Arts in English Literary Studies at the University of Cape Town. His research is focused on micro-spatial constructions (or ‘small places’) in the literature of South Africa’s interregnum. His essays on the works of Sol Plaatje, Arthur Miller, and Sisonke Msimang have appeared in various South African and international publications.

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