The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
An unnamed narrator sits in her mother’s sculpture studio in the basement of their home on an unidentified island. The mother tells her young daughter how, long ago, there were far more things on the island, but things have been disappearing one by one. She says it’s a “shame” that the people on the island haven’t been able to hold on to the memories of the things that disappeared. The narrator asks if they are scary—these “disappearances”—and her mother says that they’re not and that they don’t hurt, and that often when it happens it will be over before the narrator even realizes it.
The novel’s opening sets up the narrator’s relationship to her mother, as well as her mother’s relationship to “disappearances.” These “disappearances” are very mysterious in the beginning, but the reader at least understands that there are fewer things on the island now than there used to be. The mother conveys that this is a disappointment, even if she tries to make her daughter feel better by assuring her that disappearances don’t hurt—this is important, because the mother’s sense of loss will later contrast with other people’s apathy about disappearances. It is also noteworthy that the novel begins with the narrator’s mother telling her daughter a story—this centers the importance of storytelling in the narrative and shows how stories can be passed down even if certain physical objects are gone.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The narrator listens to her mother while sitting on a little stool. Her mother, in a soft voice, continues telling her how people are emotional in the days after a disappearance, but that they usually settle down after a few days. No one “makes a fuss.” Eventually, most people can’t even remember what it was that disappeared.
The narrator’s mother is experienced with disappearances, which signals that they’ve been going on for the narrator’s whole life. Saying that people are upset at first but then move on rather quickly shows how the people on the island tend to accept the disappearances, and it suggests that most people think there is nothing to be done about them.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The narrator’s mother then leads the narrator to an old cabinet with small drawers, which is situated behind a staircase. The mother tells the narrator to pick any drawer she’d like, and the narrator hesitates before deciding, even though she’s done this many times before. Her mother keeps many of the things that have been disappeared from their island in this secret spot. The narrator takes her time choosing, thinking about all of the mysterious things that the cabinet contains.
The fact that the disappeared objects are so clandestinely hidden foreshadows the existence of the Memory Police and suggests that it is very dangerous to hold on to these simple things. This moment also signifies something else, though, about the disappearances—that some people seem to be able to resist them. The fact that the narrator has done this activity with her mother multiple times also indicates that her mother shows her these objects often, which must mean she feels it’s important.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Once the narrator chooses, her mother opens the drawer, smiles, and hands the narrator a “kind of fabric called ‘ribbon.’” They also look at something called a “bell” that would ring and make a pleasant sound, an “emerald” that used to be beautiful and precious, and a “stamp” that would make it possible for someone to deliver a letter anywhere in the world. The narrator treasures hearing these words—they feel exotic and otherworldly. But when the narrator tries to imagine a time when all of these things existed on the island, she has trouble doing so. It is like trying to sculp clouds out of modeling clay.
The objects’ randomness (the lack of connection between these items) suggest that disappearances are arbitrary and could happen to any odd thing. The items’ ordinariness (stamp, ribbon, bell) also doesn’t really match the covert way that the narrator views them, again emphasizing the danger that she and her mother must be in by just looking at these objects and, in turn, foreshadowing the presence of the Memory Police.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Quotes
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The narrator’s favorite story that her mother tells her is about “perfume”—the narrator thinks she is supposed to drink this liquid, but her mother tells her she used to wear it when she was young, before a date. The perfume that her mother keeps in the cabinet is the same one that she wore when she and the narrator’s father began dating. She says that back in those days, everyone could smell perfume. When perfume disappeared, everyone dumped their bottles out into the river. Now most people don’t even remember what it was.
The narrator’s total lack of connection to the mysterious “perfume” contrasts with the mother’s meaningful, personal connection to the object. This emphasizes how each item is important not only because of its function, but also because it sparks a memory, which in turn sparks an emotion. This suggests that without memories, there would be less and less human emotion.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Quotes
At nine o’clock, the narrator is about to go upstairs to bed. But first, she asks her mother the question that has been on her mind: why does she (the mother) remember all the things that have been disappeared, and no one else does? The mother pauses a moment, looks out of the window, and tells the narrator that it must be because she is always thinking about these things. The narrator says that she doesn’t understand and asks if her mother remembers everything, forever. Her mother does not respond, just looks down sadly, and the narrator gives her a kiss to try and make her feel better.
This scene shows how “disappearances” have made the mother sad and isolated, even though she’s kept her memories. This suggests that memories must be shared, or their meaning lessens. The mother saying that she thinks she remembers things because she thinks about them all the time (not that she is lucky, etc.) suggests that people may be able combat the forgetting linked to disappearances. The narrator is also clearly very fond of her mother, and her mother’s brave act of hiding disappeared objects will shape the way the narrator sees the world.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon