The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police: Chapter 4  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
That Wednesday, the narrator has an “encounter” with the Memory Police. She’s seen them three other times this month and believes that they are growing more brutal. They have been on the island for 15 years—their appearance coincided with people realizing that there were some people (like the narrator’s mother) who did not lose their memory of things that disappeared. The narrator is on her way to meet her editor, walking along the road, when the encounter takes place. The Memory Police’s trucks—dark green with canvas covering—pull up, and 10 men get out and hurry into a building. People gather on the street to watch nervously.
The fact that the Memory Police have existed for a shorter time than the disappearances have been taking place indicates that the Memory Police do not cause disappearances—however, they have taken advantage of the situation to seize control of this island society. People gathering nervously on the street as they pull up shows that citizens have anxiety about seeing the Memory Police, which supports the narrator’s feeling that they are growing more and more brutal.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Soon, the Memory Police emerge from the building with two middle-aged men, a woman in her thirties, and a thin teenage girl. It’s clear to the narrator—from the untied shoelaces and messy bags—that these people had to pack quickly. The Memory Police point weapons at the civilians as they march them out of the building. The Memory Police’s badges glint in the sunlight.
This scene shows how quickly and abruptly the Memory Police work, and how the citizens of the island already feel like there’s little they can do other than watch. The fact that the Memory Police take even a young child highlights their increasing cruelty.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The Memory Police load the people into one of their vans. The youngest girl (who is at the back of the line) tries to climb into the van, but it is too high, and she falls on her back. The narrator cries out inadvertently, dropping her manuscript. The other people watching look at the narrator “disapprovingly”—only one person moves to help the narrator gather papers. But the Memory Police do not notice the disturbance—they grab the girl who fell, pull her into the truck, and drive off. The narrator wonders what the officer’s hand had felt like to the young girl.
The Memory Police not being concerned that a young girl fell backwards out of their van again shows their cold indifference to the citizens of the island. People looking “disapprovingly” at the narrator for making a noise—possibly drawing attention to the crowd on the street—shows how worried citizens are that any attention from the Memory Police is dangerous. The narrator’s curiosity about the touch of the Memory Police’s hand possibly speaks to her belief that they are growing more inhumane: would the officer’s hand even feel like the hand of a fellow human being?
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Once the Memory Police are gone, it takes a moment for the people on the street to continue what they were doing. Only when the narrator hears an engine start up does she feel like she can move again.
The nervousness of the people on the street, unable to move until jolted to life by a loud noise, again proves how intimidating the Memory Police are and how much the people of the island fear them.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
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When the narrator arrives at the publishing house, she tells her editor, R, that she saw something horrible. He immediately guesses the Memory Police, and she says that she thinks they’re getting worse. R agrees that they’re awful, but the narrator insists that today was unusual, since taking four people in the middle of town in broad daylight is especially bad. R says that those people must have been hidden in a “safe house.”
This is first interaction between the narrator and R, who later becomes one of the novel’s central characters, and it seems serious but not particularly intimate. Their relationship, at this point, is that of writer and editor. It’s noteworthy that they talk about safe houses, though, because this shows that there is an established element of trust already between them—safe houses are not a casual topic of conversation, since it’s too risky to discuss such matters. R mentioning safe house is also one of the novel’s earliest allusions to the Holocaust and to The Diary of Anne Frank (a huge influence on the story), since Frank had to hide with her family in the annex of a safe house during WWII.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The narrator wants to ask more questions about what a safe house means, but she gets nervous that there could be plain clothes Memory Police officers listening. However, there are only three other people in the lobby, so R explains that there is an underground network of citizens building rooms in their homes to shelter the people the Memory Police are looking for. However, R says that if the Memory Police are starting to raid safe houses, “then there’s really no place left to hide…”
It's ominous that R and the narrator have to regulate their conversations even in their workplace—this shows that they fear the Memory Police’s surveillance abilities. It’s also worrying that R thinks there is “no place left to hide,” since this suggests that he’s incredibly worried about the state of their society. However, R will later find that there is a place left to hide on the island, after all.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
The conversation trickles off. Eventually, the narrator says that she always found it strange that the Memory Police can tell who these people are—those who are immune to the disappearances. Aesthetically, they seem like everyone else, and they are a mix of old, young, female, and male. She wonders why it isn’t easier to blend in with the rest of the population. But R says that it must be hard to suppress all those memories. If it were so easy to pretend that they forgot things, they wouldn’t need to be in safe houses.
It's telling that R is the one who says it must be difficult to pretend to forget, since this foreshadows an important thing about him. His statement also proves something important about how the novel views memory: that it is a fundamental part of being human.
Themes
Memory and Connection  Theme Icon
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
R continues that he’s heard a rumor about how the Memory Police may soon be able to test people’s genes to tell the difference, and that they could be collecting gene samples from anywhere—a cup of coffee, for example. He says that the island is “run” by men who are determined to make disappeared things stay forgotten. The narrator asks R if he thinks the Memory Police killed her mother, and R answers carefully, not says a definitive yes but admitting that he definitely thinks her mother was “under observation.”
The rumor about the Memory Police testing people’s genetics further underscores their surveillance capabilities. The narrator asking R about her mother shows again that they have a lot of trust between them, but R’s careful response shows that he’s not willing to say something so damning about the Memory Police (to the narrator) just yet. However, this is a meaningful development in the mystery about what happened to the narrator’s mother—the details of which have not yet been fully revealed.
Themes
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Theme Icon
Quotes
R then holds the narrator’s manuscript and muses about how odd it is to still be able to create something with words on an island where everything is disappearing. The narrator frightfully wonders to herself what would happen if words disappeared. She’s afraid to ask the question and afraid it might one day come true.
R's appreciation for writing and storytelling is a big part of his personality. To that end, the narrator’s admiration of R’s passion for storytelling is a big part of what draws her to him. It’s meaningful that they bond over the narrator’s manuscript. The narrator’s worry about the future of the island is one she will repeat throughout the story, and it’s telling that she’s too afraid to ask it, because it shows that this is one of her deepest fears.
Themes
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Theme Icon
Quotes