In The Memory Police, objects on an unnamed island mysteriously “disappear,” meaning that people suddenly forget them. Following a disappearance, the townspeople will typically destroy these items, often tossing them into the river or burning them in bonfires. However, there is a subset of people who are immune: they don’t forget like they’re supposed to and don’t physically destroy the objects. So, the government creates a law enforcement branch called the Memory Police to hunt these people down. This militia spies on citizens, makes arrests without warning or reason, and operates in secret and with total impunity. The level of surveillance is so intense that the island’s inhabitants live in a constant state of fear. At a certain point, even people who are suspected of hiding an immune person are subject to arrest, and the island’s inhabitants grow colder to one another so as not raise suspicion. This shows how relationships and cooperation are undermined in an authoritarian state where people are constantly surveilled.
However, by the end of the novel, the Memory Police’s role in the narrative gets significantly smaller. The losses from disappearances become increasingly serious (even people’s body parts begin to disappear), and the citizens are so good at adhering to the rules of the regime that they start to enforce them without really thinking about it. Their behavior demonstrates that if people live under an authoritarian regime for long enough, their entire way of thinking can be altered, and the state may not even need to intervene to get people to act a certain way. There is some ambiguity to the novel’s ending, though, since it’s possible that the Memory Police themselves have even disappeared. Before the unnamed narrator herself “disappears,” she tells R (her editor who is unaffected by the disappearances) that even the Memory Police are gone. So, R is able to leave the room he was hiding in and go out into the world. In this way, the book ends by suggesting that authoritarian regimes are so destructive and antithetical to humane life that they may eventually even be their own undoing.
Authoritarianism and Surveillance ThemeTracker
Authoritarianism and Surveillance Quotes in The Memory Police
“But why do they take people away? They haven’t don’t anything wrong.”
“The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. From their point of view, anything that fails to vanish when they say it should is inconceivable. So they force it to disappear with their own hands.”
“Do you think my mother was killed?” I knew it was pointless to ask R, but the question slipped out.
“She was definitely under observation, being studied.” R chose his words carefully.
“It’s terribly kind of you to be concerned, but I think it would be best not to tell you anything about the safe house. It’s not that we’re worried you might let something slip—if that were the case, we would never have brought the sculptures here in the first place. But we can’t allow ourselves to cause you any more trouble than we already have. The more deeply you become involved, the more danger you’ll be in. You can’t be forced to reveal what you don’t know, but if you do know something, there’s no telling what they might do to get it out of you. So I beg of you, please don’t ask about the safehouse.”
“It’s true, I know, that there are more gaps in the island than there used to be. When I was a child, the whole place seemed…how can I put this?...a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I supposed that kept things in balance. And even when that balance begins to collapse, something remains. Which is why you shouldn’t worry.”
R let out a little gasp of surprise as I rolled up the carpet and lifted the trapdoor.
“Like a cave floating in the sky,” he murmured.
“It’s a bit tight, I know, but at least you’ll be safe here. No one can see you from outside, and there’s not much chance of them hearing you either.”
The tapping of the key striking the paper was the only sound in the room. Snow had begun to fall again, covering the tracks I had made […] He continued to hold me tighter […] The bell in the clock tower began to chime. Five o’clock. The vibration came from far above, rattling the window glass and passing through our bodies, before being absorbed by the snow below. The only motion was the falling of the snowflakes. I held my breath, unable to move, as though locked inside the typewriter.
In this way we managed to live in relative security. Everything went according to plan, and we seemed to have solutions for any problems that did occur. The old man did much to help us, and R did his best to adjust quickly to the secret room.
But quite apart from the small satisfactions we enjoyed, the world outside was deteriorating day by day. The disappearances, which had slowed down after the roses, returned with two in quick succession: first, photographs, and then fruits of all sorts.
“You’ll forget you ever had a voice,” he continued. “You may find it annoying at first, until you get used to it. You’ll move your lips as you just did, go looking for a typewriter, a notepad. But soon enough you’ll see how pointless it is. You have no need to talk, no need to utter a single word. There’s nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. Then, at last, you’ll be all mine.”
Just then, three shadows emerged from the house to the east of mine. It was too dark to distinguish their features, but they walked wearily through the snow, backs bent, the Memory Police pushing them from behind, the light glinting cruelly off their guns.
Snatches of my neighbors’ voices could be heard in the dark.
“I had no idea they were hiding people in there,” said the former hatmaker. “Who would have thought it?”
“Seems as though both the husband and wife were in a secret group that help folks like that.”
“I guess that’s why they didn’t get to know anyone in the neighborhood.”
“Look at him. He’s just a child.”
I’d heard rumors that people who had been hiding were forced to wander the streets when their homes were destroyed by the earthquake or the fires that followed it. And that the Memory Police had been rounding them up and taking them into custody one after the other. But I had no way to know whether the Inui family had actually been in that truck or not. All I could do was pray that someone had continued to cut the little boy’s fingernails and that the blue gloves were still protecting him.
For a very long time, he sat staring at the void in his palms. When at last he had convinced himself that there was nothing left, he let his arms drop wearily. Then he climbed the ladder one rung at a time, lifted the trapdoor, and went out into the world. Sunlight came streaming in for one moment but vanished again as the door creaked shut. The faint sound of the rug being rolled out on the floor came to me from above.
Closed in the hidden room, I continued to disappear.