The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police: Chapter 19  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Several weeks pass. In this time, the narrator has a strange encounter with a woman while out on a walk. A woman selling vegetables comes up to the narrator and sells her some cauliflower and peppers, but then suddenly asks the narrator if she knows of a safe hiding place. The narrator does not know what to do, as she doesn’t recognize the older woman, and it is a very odd request from a total stranger. The narrator tells the old woman that she is sorry but that she cannot help her. The narrator knows that there is no way she could have hidden this woman without putting R in danger, but she still thinks about her throughout the next week. A week later, the older woman is gone, and the narrator has no way of knowing what happened to her.
The encounter that the narrator has with this woman shows the strangeness of living on the island—how people are going about their daily lives but there is this undercurrent of terror and fear. It also unfortunately shows how sometimes people have to make the hard call of prioritizing friends and loved ones over strangers, because caring for one person could mean danger for another.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
During these weeks, the narrator also hosts her neighbors, the ex-hatmaker and his wife. They need somewhere to stay while having their house painted, as it is too cold to sleep with the windows open while the paint dries. The narrator is nervous the entire time the couple is in the house, even though they are not intrusive. Every sound scares her, since she thinks it could give away R and the secret room. Nothing happens, though, and a few days after the couple leaves, they send the narrator food to thank her for her hospitality.
Again, the narrator’s fear after doing a simple favor for her neighbors shows the terror that people living under authoritarian control feel on a daily basis—especially when they defy the oppressive regime in order to do good things for other people.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Also in this time, the narrator starts caring for the young couple’s dog, Don. The old man helps the narrator move his doghouse into her backyard. He is a sweet mutt who takes to the narrator, and she makes him a bed of blankets in her entry hall inside the house. The narrator realizes that she’s caring for the dog the way she wishes she could have cared for his previous owners, the young boy they were hiding, the Inui family, and even the Inui’s cat.
The narrator’s projection onto the dog shows how much she still cares for people in her community, even if she isn’t always able to help them. There is a deep sadness to this feeling, though, because it shows how she has been prevented from helping people. It also suggests that she feels isolated even from those she’d like to care for.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
After these “relatively uneventful” weeks, another disappearance occurs. The narrator thought she had become accustomed to them, but this disappearance is tricky. This time, novels disappear. R is “violently” opposed to the narrator getting rid of all of her novels. He pleads with the narrator to bring the books to him, but she tells him there is not enough space in the room and, anyway, what’s the point of storing something disappeared?
The narrator’s worst fear comes to pass. However, it is remarkable (and troubling) how quickly she becomes desensitized to the idea that novels will no longer exist. After spending much of the book worrying about this eventuality, she already tells R that it’s not worth keeping something that has disappeared, which highlights the enormous, destructive power of disappearances. R’s “violent” opposition to getting rid of the narrator’s books shows that he’s still the same person—a person who cares about stories. But this is contrasted with the narrator’s immediate indifference, which foreshadows the difficulties they might have agreeing on things in the future.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Quotes
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R tries to remind the narrator that she writes novels, but this seems to hardly register with her. She admits that she feels like her “soul must be breaking down.” He begs her to at least not burn her manuscript. She ends up acquiescing, even though the word “novel” is becoming difficult for her to say. She selects 12 books to bring to the secret room along with her manuscript.
It's worth noting that the narrator can recognize changes within herself, even if she feels like she is powerless to stop them. This almost makes it worse, since she is aware of just how much she is losing. Again, it’s remarkable how quickly the disappearance has taken effect—the narrator already seems like almost a different person.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The people in the town start burning their books. Flames rise all over the island. The old man helps the narrator carry all her remaining books to the center of town, so they can throw them into the mountain of burning books. It is a “solemn ceremony.”
Since this is a “solemn ceremony” for the people on the island, it is likely that many people are experiencing something similar to what the narrator is going through—they know what is happening is sad (because of how meaningful books are), but they don’t feel like they can do anything to stop it.
Themes
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Suddenly, a young woman moves to the font of the crowd, climbs on a bench, and starts shouting. The narrator cannot hear her, but she looks distraught and agitated. She’s wearing something odd on her head. The narrator says to the old man that she should get down, otherwise the Memory Police will take her. He replies that it’s too late, and guards begin to pull the young woman down by her arms. The narrator hears her yell “no one can erase these stories!” The narrator then realizes what the young woman had been wearing: a hat. It falls off as the guards take her away, and someone from the crowd throws it into the fire.
This scene is important because it shows how there really are two forces acting on most of the people on the island: the Memory Police, who are repressive and cruel, but also their own mind and forgetfulness, because someone throws the hat into the fire without being instructed to. The woman who tries to stand up for books is immediately silenced, and no one tries to help her, which demonstrates the dual sense of terror and apathy that the citizens live with.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
On their way home from burning the books, the old man and the narrator see that the library is on fire. The beauty of the burning library mesmerizes the narrator, and her anxieties about the disappearance of books seem to fade away. The narrator and the old man hear people on the street saying that the area will likely be turned into a headquarters for the Memory Police one day.
The narrator’s mind already appears to be working differently than it used to, since she is able to watch the burning library without worrying about the fact that books are burning. That the library—once a place for stories, which themselves are a way to resist forgetting—will be turned into a headquarters for the Memory Police is a cruel metaphor for the deterioration of the island and the way that authoritarian regimes completely eclipse the cultures that existed before the government’s oppressive, all-consuming policies.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Continuing their walk home, the narrator and the old man stop by the observatory, which is in ruins. The narrator says aloud a quote she heard once: “Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.” She can’t remember where she heard it. The old man says that even if that’s where they’re headed, there’s nothing to be done about it. She wonders if human beings will disappear. He tells her that she has to stop worrying about things like that, since they are all going to die someday.
The quote that the narrator offers up in this scene comes from Heinrich Heine, a Jewish German who wrote about Nazi Germany. This emphasizes that the story is heavily influenced by the treatment of Jewish people under Nazi Europe in WWII. The old man’s calm attitude towards the fate of the island is at once commendable—because he is trying to get the narrator not to worry—and troublesome, because so much tragedy has happened on the island that it feels wrong to say there’s nothing they can do.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The narrator has a few more books with her, and she and the old man throw them out the observatory window. She asks him how he felt when ferries disappeared, but he says that was too long ago to remember. He tells the narrator not to worry—she’ll find something else to do for a living. She’ll eventually forget she ever wrote novels.
Again, the old man’s attitude is reassuring and startling at the same time. So much of the narrator’s identity was wrapped up in being an author that it feels like a terrible loss for her to not be able to write anymore, even if she finds another way to make a living.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
The narrator tells the old man she is going to try and write in secret, because R told her this was possible. The old man looks thoughtful and admits that even though he’s been listening to the music box on the boat, he doesn’t feel any different inside. His memories are not coming back. He says that she shouldn’t tire herself out.
Here, the difference between R’s optimism and the old man’s realism is clear, since the old man suggests that it’s unlikely they’ll be able to regain lost memories.
Themes
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon
Fate vs. Free Will Theme Icon
Suddenly, the narrator “takes a deep breath and feels a sharp pain,” as though a “spark” has entered “the bottomless swamp of her heart.” She realizes that the books, flying through the air out of the observatory, fluttered just like the wings of the things she used to watch through binoculars with her father. Birds. But even this memory soon fades, and she only sees the fires illuminating the dark night.
The narrator feeling like she can connect to the memory of her father even for an instant proves how closely memory and connection are linked. The suddenness of the moment is important because it causes her a “sharp pain”—suggesting that realizing she has access to a memory she thought was lost is a painful thing. The chapter does not end on an optimistic note, though, which means that there may not be any narrative payoff for this fleeting burst of connection and memory.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Loss, Isolation, and Identity Theme Icon