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A memory of the forgotten

A memory of the forgotten

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder, is set on an island where anything that has disappeared – been thrown away, lost, burned or handed over to the Memory Police – “no longer has any meaning”. Birds, roses, maps, perfume and stamps are among the things that have gone while the Memory Police enforce the forgetting. This is the natural state of affairs, except that a very few people don’t forget. In the video watch party this week to celebrate and discuss the book, the chair of the International Booker Prize judges Ted Hodgkinson pointed out that “the book was first written many years ago, and yet feels so utterly contemporary”. Indeed Ogawa wrote the novel – a mix, in Hodgkinson’s words of “allegory, myth and dystopia” – way back in 1994 but the sense of things being unstable and not being able to trust reality has grown stronger ever since. In the age of lockdown, the world as we knew it has been gradually disappearing.

The book’s translator, Stephen Snyder, noted that he is almost as familiar with Ogawa’s writing as she is herself: this is the fifth book of hers he has translated, as well as some of her short stories and essays. And, he said, the 25-year gap between first publication and translation into English has been frustrating for the author – she has wanted it translated for donkey’s years. In fact, the book is not as Japanese as many readers think. Ogawa herself pointed out that her initial inspiration was Anne Frank’s diary and the realisation that “Through words you can obtain freedom.”

Purely coincidentally, the Anne Frank Trust has just run its first anti-racism writing competition for teenage, tyro novelists and poets. The prize was a trip to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam but perhaps the real reward was that submissions were judged by none other than the reigning Booker Prize co-champ Bernardine Evaristo.

The musical playlist to accompany The Memory Police, put together with the streaming service Deezer, includes such exotic-sounding artists as Bonobo, Tofubeats and Le Makeup. Clearly a gift for words is not confined to novelists. In fact, Deezer and the International Booker Prize have come up with a quiz to help readers unsure of which shortlisted book (and soundtrack) to try first. Answer a series of questions and you will be pointed in the right direction. Really, it would be rude not to give it a go. . .

Prospect magazine, a journal for penseurs, has just come up with its annual “The world’s top 50 thinkers” list. The compilers were looking for people of “relevance”, particularly “for a shaken world that is beginning to reset.” So it is no great surprise to find a Booker Prize contingent well and truly present: double winner Hilary Mantel, longlistee and TV darling Sally Rooney and International Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. Prospect has been running this accolade since 2004 and one wouldn’t wish to be picky but Mantel, to take one example, has been a “top thinker” for decades rather than things just clicking this year. But, as the citation puts it: “One of the most acute analysts of the 21st century’s often alarmingly personal politics is a novelist writing about Tudor England.” Any clout the writers have outside the world of books is more than welcome.