The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police: Chapter 16  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A little while after the calendars disappear, it is the old man’s birthday. Even though they can’t keep dates on calendars anymore or keep time through the seasons, the narrator feels sure that it is his birthday, and she says a celebration will do R some good. The narrator has to go to the market once a day for a whole week to get the food for the party, since rations on the island are so low. However, she’s able to get meat and fish easily enough, since the butcher and the fishmonger are friends of the old man.
Keeping up birthdays shows how the group wants to maintain some semblance of normalcy even amidst the chaos of their outer lives. The narrator’s impressive efforts to get things ready for the party underscores how much she cares about the old man, and how close to him she feels. It’s also worth noting that the old man is friends with the butcher and the fishmonger, which shows that he's a kind, well-liked figure on the island.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
On the day of their celebration, the old man shows up at the narrator’s house dressed well. The narrator has set everything up in the secret room, so that when the old man climbs down and sees the platters of food and the decoration, he is surprised and delighted. There is steam coming off the dishes of chicken and fish, which are decorated with wildflowers and herbs. The narrator, the old man, and R have to squeeze to fit at the table—but once they’re seated, they toast with wine. The wine was secretly made at the hardware store and is nothing fancy, but it is a pretty color under the glow of the lamp. They all cheer to the old man’s health, and it is the first time in a long time that they’ve felt this “jolly.”
It is peaceful and pleasant to see how the old man, the narrator, and R try to keep up spirits despite things getting harder and harder. This shows that they’re dedicated to maintaining human connection, even amidst all the difficulties around them. Their modest celebration brings them more joy than they’ve had in a while, which suggests that there can be some happiness even in the hardest of times.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
The party continues merrily. For a while, the narrator, the old man, and R are almost able to forget their circumstances. However, any time one of them lets out a particularly loud laugh, they still cover their mouths and look around. The old man and R remark at how lovely the meal is. R and the narrator make sure that the old man eats his fill.
This scene is notable for how happy and normal it is—except that the narrator, the old man, and R are having this celebration in a secret room. This scene contrasts the difficulties of life under an authoritarian regime with the simple, everyday pleasures that people still yearn to enjoy.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Once they finish dinner and dessert, the narrator and R take out their presents. The narrator gives the old man a porcelain shaving set, and he is moved to have received something so beautiful. Then R brings out his present for the old man: a small wooden box. The narrator and the old man stare at it in wonder, and when R opens it, they see a mirror and felt on the inside. There is no record or instrument, but music begins to play. The old man and the narrator are puzzled and transfixed. They ask where the music is coming from, and R says the box itself. The old man thinks it is magic, but R responds that it is an orugōru (music box). The orugōru was disappeared years ago.
R's generous and beautiful gift shows that his character is thawing, and he is able to connect to the narrator and the old man in a way that he wasn’t able to at the beginning of the novel. The beauty of the gift is overshadowed, though, by its mystery, since the narrator and the old man struggle to recognize the object.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
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The narrator tries desperately to remember a time when the orugōru existed, at least for R’s sake, but she cannot. R explains that he began to realize he wasn’t affected around the time the orugōru disappeared. He knew instinctively not to tell anyone, but he also started hiding the disappeared objects because he couldn’t bring himself to throw them out. The old man objects, saying he could never keep such a precious gift, but R insists that he is more than happy to give it if it helps to “delay or stop this decay in your hearts in even some small way.”
The narrator and the old man’s reaction shows how removed they are from things that have disappeared. The narrator wants to please R by remembering something, and even though she wants to do this so badly, she can’t, and this only emphasizes how difficult it is to reclaim memories once they’re gone. However, R’s attitude in this scene suggests that he thinks some memory loss—at least memory loss related to disappearances—can be overcome. This highlights his believe that there is an element of free will to forgetting and that the narrator and the old man don’t have to passively accept them.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The music continues to play. The narrator asks R if he really thinks their hearts are decaying. He says he’s not sure about the wording, but that something irreversible seems to be happening, and it frightens him. The narrator can barely say “o…ru…gō…ru.” R asks if it’s painful to be reminded of the things that they forget. The old man says no—he’ll be honored to play the music box in his home on the boat.
R again shows how much he now cares for the narrator and the old man, since he is not only connected to them but also truly worried about them.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
The narrator comments on how wonderful the party was, and R agrees that it was the best birthday party he can remember. They open the box to listen to the music one last time. Just as the song ends, the doorbell rings loudly.
This demonstrates shows just how quickly happiness can be taken away when people live in fear of an oppressive, authoritarian government.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon