The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police: Chapter 13  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Snow falls on the island for the first time in a long time. It collects everywhere. The Memory Police patrol the town in extremely elegant clothing (soft-looking coats with green-dyed fur trim). These coats are far lovelier than any coat that a civilian on the island could dream of finding for themselves.
Since it starts snowing, and snow is symbolic of the people of the island growing numb to tragic events, the story indicates that things on the island might take a disappointing turn. The Memory Police’s fancy jackets prove that they are richer than most people on the island.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The Memory Police begin to search houses without any particular reason—showing up on a block, surrounding the houses, and searching from top to bottom. Nobody knows how they select the houses for these searches or who will be next. Even the lightest sounds wake the narrator up at night, as she’s worried for R. People have taken to staying in their homes, as though “the snow had frozen their hearts.”
The Memory Police’s uptick in searches creates an unavoidable anxiety on the island. People live in fear, which prevents them from taking any sort of collective action. It’s as though “snow has frozen their hearts,” which shows that they think the only way to move forward is to put their heads down and accept their fates without getting into trouble.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
One day, without warning, the Memory Police take the old man. The narrator opens the trapdoor of the secret room and desperately calls out to R. She says that the Memory Police must have learned something. She is shaking so hard that it is difficult to climb down the ladder into the room. She feels certain that the Memory Police will be at the house soon, and she frantically lists all the other places R might go to hide. He puts an arm around her to sooth her, but this just quickens her heartbeat. R says that if they had known about the secret room, they already would have come to get him, so there is no need to panic yet.
The narrator’s reaction to the old man’s arrest suggests that she automatically assumes the worst, and that R will be arrested soon. This demonstrates how much fear she carries every day.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
R concludes that the old man must have been taken for something unrelated, since the Memory Police often round up people just to try and collect information. The narrator hopes nothing horrible has happened to him. R says that it’s possible he’s been tortured, since there’s no way of knowing exactly what the Memory Police are capable of. If the narrator wants R to leave, he will—but she says she’s not fearful of being arrested, only of losing him, which is why she’s shaking. R holds the narrator for a long time.
The terrifying circumstances of the old man’s arrest drive R and the narrator closer together. R admitting that the Memory Police could be torturing the old man shows that there’s no way to know exactly how bad things get once someone is taken.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
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The next day, without telling R, the narrator decides she’ll go to the Memory Police headquarters. She wants any information she can get and to help the old man if possible. She trudges to the headquarters—the sun is weakly shining, but there is still snow everywhere, and only the Memory Police have snow boots Two guards stand outside the front door, staring straight ahead. Although the narrator tells them that she’s here to visit someone, the guards do not look at her or acknowledge her. She asks to go inside, but they still do not reply or look at her. She manages to open the heavy wooden front door on her own and walk inside.
This is an uncharacteristic move for the narrator—not because it is brave, but because she normally confides in R in most things she does. The Memory Police, however, are characteristically stoic, reinforcing the idea that they are a cold, menacing presence to the people of the island. The narrator shows courage and loyalty by opening the door on her own to find information about the old man.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Once inside the building, the narrator is in a large, dimly lit hall. There are more Memory Police officers inside, marching across the room. The narrator hears no voices, no laughter—just boots clacking against the floor.
Again, the Memory Police come across as a cold—and even unhuman—group.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator sees an officer sitting at a desk and approaches him. She tells him that she has a package she’d like to deliver to someone. The officer repeats back the word “package” as though it were a challenging philosophical term. He asks her who she is here to visit, and the narrator responds with the old man’s name. The officer says that the old man is not there. The narrator asks how he could know if he didn’t even check, and the officer responds that he knows the name of everyone there.
Since the officer seems baffled by the word “package,” it’s clear that people don’t come inside the headquarters often, which further shows how much the Memory Police scare people on the island. The narrator knows that the old man is there, so when the officer tells her that he isn’t, the narrator knows the officer is lying. This underscores the untrustworthiness of the Memory Police.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator tries to argue with the Memory Police officer, determined to figure out where the old man is, but the officer says it’s a complicated system that the narrator doesn’t understand. He then makes a subtle movement, and two guards appear next to the narrator. In silence, the guards hurry her away through a “maze” of hallways until they are in a room in the center of the building.
The Memory Police are eerily orchestrated inside the headquarters, again making them seem not like a group made up of individual human beings, but a single solid, cruel, and unempathetic entity.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator is shocked by the elegance of the room—tapestries on the wall, leather couches—but this suddenly reminds her of the fancy car that took her mother away. A man comes to sit in front of her, telling her that he is sorry she made the trip, but that “both visits and packages are forbidden.” The man is wearing medals on his chest, and the narrator figures he must be high-ranking in the Memory Police.
The abundance in this room confirms the fact that the Memory Police have an enormous budget, even though resources on the island are dwindling. This shows how authoritarian regimes often spare no expense, often at the cost of the rest of society. It’s scary that neither packages nor trips are allowed, because it means that the authorities don’t want anyone seeing what they are doing behind closed doors.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator asks this man why she is not allowed to visit or to bring things, and he tells her that those are the rules. She counters that she has brought nothing dangerous and shows the man everything in her bag. The man tells the narrator that she shouldn’t worry, that her friend is being fed and cared for. She argues back, asking why such an innocent old man would be taken. He says that it is up for them to decide if there is any reason to hold the old man.
The narrator shows courage and resistance as she argues with the guard—a potentially dangerous thing to do, especially inside the headquarters. This shows that she’s trying not to give into the Memory Police’s rule.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator then asks if they can at least tell her if the old man is safe, to which the man suggests that if he is indeed as innocent as the narrator says, she should have no need to be worried. The old man is being fed three meals a day from a first-class chef, and the man says that he’s sure the old man wouldn’t even want any of the food that the narrator brought even if he was offered it.
The Memory Police keep lying to the narrator—the comment about fancy meals is almost certainly a lie. In turn, it becomes clear that the authorities want to be impenetrable and impossible to argue with.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The man continues that his job is only to ensure that memories disappear the way they’re supposed to, saying that it is like a bodily infection: “if your big toe becomes infected with gangrene, you cut it off as soon as you can. If you do nothing, you end up losing the whole leg,” and memories after a disappearance follow the same principle. Since their “adversary” is invisible—since they cannot see inside each person’s heart to figure out what they’ve forgotten—they do “extremely delicate work.” The Memory Police must work in secret, then, to protect themselves.
The Memory Police officer’s reasoning shows what the government (supposedly) thinks of disappeared things: that they are useless. This shows a lack of creativity and understanding on the part of the Memory Police, who don’t want to admit that objects and memories have connective value. The man also thinks that the job of the Memory Police is very grand and important, when really they are just being repressive.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator looks around—she can see outside, where people are huddled waiting in line for a bank. She decides it will do no good to ask any more questions. The man then tells her that it is his turn to ask questions and hands her a form asking for her name, address, occupation, academic history, religious affiliation, employment expertise, height, weight, shoe size, hair color, blood type, and more. She starts to realize that coming here might have been a mistake, because the more information she gives the Memory Police, the closer they will be to R. Still, she decides that she must not hesitate—since they likely know most of this information already, she thinks this is more of a test to see how she responds. She fills out the form slowly, to avoid shaking.
The fact that people are huddled in line for the bank suggests that money is starting to become scarce on the island, which contrasts sharply with the decadence inside the headquarters. This again shows how the Memory Police don’t actually care about the citizens of the island. The form that the narrator must fill out is incredibly detailed, but it's noteworthy and worrying that she assumes they already have all this information. This suggests the Memory Police are just as powerful as she expected.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Later that night, back at home, the narrator is alert and on edge. She thinks she might write, but she can’t put down a single word. Snow falls. After staring out the window for a while, the narrator uses the makeshift intercom to ask R if he is asleep. She tells him that it’s snowing, and he says it’s hard to imagine that there’s snow just outside his windowless walls. They have a tender, slow conversation about the snow and the world outside—the narrator tells R how different the island looks with snow everywhere.
Although the narrator and R have a meaningful conversation, it is worrying that snow is now everywhere—since snow symbolizes collective numbness, the story might be suggesting more tragedy and indifference is yet to come.
Themes
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Quotes
The narrator then tells R about how, when she was younger, “the mystery of sleep” fascinated her—she thought that in the “land of sleep,” there would be no chores, bad meals, or pain. She recounts how one day, when her parents were out, she found a bottle of sleeping pills and takes as many as possible, “in search of the land of sleep.” She was disappointed when the pills only made her fall sleep until the evening—she felt refreshed, but she hadn’t found what she was looking for. After her story, the narrator offers to bring her end of the intercom to the window, so that R can hear the snow falling. She does, and R says that he can feel the snow up in the secret room.
This is quite a sad story, and even suggests that the narrator might have had some suicidal thoughts when she was younger. However, she doesn’t talk about her experiment as a young girl in a nervous way, which means that maybe she really did just want to go to sleep for as long as possible. Either way, this story shows that the narrator felt isolated as a young girl. Sharing this story with R makes her feel more connected. This again emphasizes how people can connect through stories and memory.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon