Though so many things disappear throughout The Memory Police, the one thing that seems to endure is storytelling. On an unnamed island, objects “disappear” without warning and are never supposed to be spoken of again—there is even a government body, the Memory Police, who roam the island to ensure these things are gone for good. However, there are people on the island who do not forget—like the unnamed narrator’s mother—and who pass along their knowledge and memories through stories. The novel opens with the narrator and her mother covertly going through a hidden drawer filled with wonderous and curious items (items that have “disappeared”), and the narrator’s mother sharing exciting personal stories connected to each item. Though the narrator’s mother eventually gets rid of the objects, the narrator never forgets these stories her mother shares—they are integral to the narrator’s character and facilitate intergenerational connection. Moreover, sharing these stories at all is an act of defiance against the Memory Police, who eventually arrest and kill the narrator’s mother for the crime of remembering “disappeared” things.
Additionally, the narrator is a writer, and even after novels are “disappeared,” she makes a grand gesture for R (her editor whom she is in love with) to finish her final manuscript and leave him with the story before she fully disappears. She finishes “the one thing” that she is “able to leave to him.” When the whole town starts burning books because they have been “disappeared,” a woman who does not forget like she is supposed to screams “They’ll never erase these stories!” just before she is carted off by the Memory Police, suggesting that the only notion of any kind of permanence in this novel comes through stories. Thus, the novel insists on the importance of stories and suggests that they are the most effective (possibly even the only) defiance people have against both cruel dictatorships and the general deterioration of memories over time.
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Longevity, and Defiance Quotes in The Memory Police
Ribbon, bell, emerald, stamp. The words that came from my mother’s mouth thrilled me, like the names of little girls from distant countries or new species of plants. As I listened to her talk, it made me happy to imagine a time when all these things had a place on the island.
Yet that was also rather difficult to do. The objects in my palm seemed to cower there, absolutely still, like little animals in hibernation, sending me no signal at all. They often left me with an uncertain feeling, as though I were trying to make images of the could in the sky out of modeling clay. When I stood before the secret drawers, I felt I had to concentrate on each word my mother said.
My favorite story was the one about “perfume,” a clear liquid in a small glass bottle. The first time my mother placed it in my hand, I thought it was some sort of sugar water, and I started to bring it to my mouth.
“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 seems strange that you can still create something totally new like this—just from words—on an island where everything else is disappearing,” he said, brushing a bit of dirt from one of the pages as though he were caressing something precious.
I realized that we were thinking the same thing. As we looked into each other’s eyes, I felt, once again, the anxiety that had taken root in our hearts a long time ago.
“Sometimes I try to remember—those were precious moments with my mother—but I can’t recall the objects. My mother’s expression, the sound of her voice, the smell of the basement air—I can remember all that perfectly. But the things in the drawers are vague, as though those memories, and those alone, have dissolved.”
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.
Needless to say, R was violently opposed to losing our collection of novels.
“You’ve got to bring them all here,” he said, “including your manuscript.”
If I do, the room will be buried in books, with no place for you to live.” I shook my head.
“Don’t worry about that, I don’t need much space. If we hide them here, they’ll never find them.”
“But what happens to them? What’s the point of storing away books that have disappeared?”
He sighed and pressed his fingers to his temples—as he always did when we talked about the disappearances. Try as we might to understand each other, nothing changed for either of us. The more we talked, the sadder we became.