Updated: May 21, 2020
The novel opens with the protagonist’s mother telling her that she too will soon forget something. Something of hers will “disappear” as everything does on the island. However, it is not only memories that are lost. Physical items as well are lost forever, sometimes leaving behind remnants or pieces that the inhabitants throw in the river or burn. It does not take long for that object or memory to be forgotten, never thought of again, as it now ceases to exist.
However, it turns out the protagonist’s mother, who is a sculptor, has been keeping objects that have supposed to have “disappeared” in a cabinet in her basement. She lets the protagonist view and feel these objects from time to time explaining to her what they are. These items, such as jewels, perfume, etc are wondrous to the protagonist. Wondrous because she has never seen them before, they were “disappeared” before she was born. Her mother has kept them and their memories. However remembering and keeping objects that have disappeared is an invitation to the Memory Police.
The inhabitants of the island will adjust their lives around these disappearances. A milliner will change to making umbrellas when hats are forgotten. A mechanic will become a security guard when the ferry he used to maintain disappears. If anybody has a problem with these changes or they retain their memory, the Memory Police step in. Anybody who retains their memory, or anybody who aids them are taken away by the Memory Police and are never seen again.
The protagonist of this novel, whose name we are never given, in fact no character’s names are revealed, is a writer and is working on her fourth novel when novels disappear. This novel is paramount to the narrative and Ogawa devotes entire chapters to it. The main character’s ordeal, although not obvious, mirrors the protagonists. However, let me return to the naming subject. Nobody, apart from the protagonist’s editor who is referred to as “R” is named in this novel. The island, the town, the streets and the people, none are named. For a novel that is predominantly about memory, I think we can say that this is intentional. What is the significance of the “R”? You tell me. The main character of the “novel” within a novel is learning to type and when first learning to type letters are typed out over and over in repetition to memorise their position on the keyboard. Another reference to memory and perhaps where the “R” comes from. Clutching at straws, I know, but trying to figure out what Ogawa has written and why is, in my opinion this novel's greatest strength..
I think that most readers will see what is coming when the inhabitants themselves start disappearing limb by limb.
There is so much going on in this novel. If your book club is looking for a book that will promote major discussion, then look no further.
From issues such as totalitarian governments, police states, freedom and oppression. To the importance of memory, how it is retained, how it is unreliable, how it is vital. I even wonder if the slow disappearing of the inhabitants, their limbs disappearing one at a time, is a metaphorical way of reminding us of our mortality. In the midst of life we are in death.
The reader cannot help but think about Nazi Germany and the holocaust when the protagonist hides her editor in a “secret” room beneath the floorboards.
Although not for everybody, especially those who have a dislike for allegory, this is a novel whose story is an ocean to explore. 4.5 Stars! * Having just started rereading this novel, I have come across a family whose name is given and I remember the dog at the end is named as well. Dang it! *
Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子) was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya. Since 1988, she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Professor and his Beloved Equation has been made into a movie. In 2006 she co-authored „An Introduction to the World's Most Elegant Mathematics“ with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.
A film in French, „L'Annulaire“ (The Ringfinger), directed by Diane Bertrand, starring Olga Kurylenko and Marc Barbé, was released in France in June 2005 and subsequently made the rounds of the international film festivals; the film, some of which is filmed in the Hamburg docks, is based in part on Ogawa's „Kusuriyubi no hyōhon“ (薬指の標本), translated into French as „L'Annulaire“ (by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle who has translated numerous works by Ogawa, as well as works by Akira Yoshimura and by Ranpo Edogawa, into French).
Kenzaburō Ōe has said, 'Yōko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating.' The subtlety in part lies in the fact that Ogawa's characters often seem not to know why they are doing what they are doing. She works by accumulation of detail, a technique that is perhaps more successful in her shorter works; the slow pace of development in the longer works requires something of a deus ex machina to end them. The reader is presented with an acute description of what the protagonists, mostly but not always female, observe and feel and their somewhat alienated self-observations, some of which is a reflection of Japanese society and especially women's roles within in it. The tone of her works varies, across the works and sometimes within the longer works, from the surreal, through the grotesque and the--sometimes grotesquely--humorous, to the psychologically ambiguous and even disturbing.
Here is a link to a short interview with Ogawa on the Booker site - https://thebookerprizes.com/international-booker/news/interview-longlisted-author-yoko-ogawa-and-translator-stephen-snyder