Saturday, August 26, 2023

Thinking about Yoko Ogawa

I read The Memory Police about a year ago and I thought it was so good that I should post something about it. I put the book down on the deep windowsill in my study which functions a bit like an in-tray. That's where I put things I'm working on, or things I need to attend to - work, parking fines, speeding tickets, tax notices and so on. For a while, each morning, I'd look at it and think about what I might write, but I couldn't come up with anything. Gradually things began to accumulate around it, and there were more pressing things to do, like my own writing for instance. Soon it was hidden underneath other stuff, well after the fines were paid and the tax notices filed away. But now there were papers to review, drafts to look over - maybe a new parking fine to pay or to appeal against, life goes on. It would be a fiction to I claim that I forgot about The Memory Police. It just got buried. It got buried because I couldn't work out what I wanted to say about it. Occasionally it would come to light again as I sorted through the mess of things on the windowsill. And if I tidied up, as I do occasionally, there it was - something I wanted to do, and I'd promise myself that I'd write something about it. But I didn't. After some time, maybe six months or so, I realised that I wasn't going to get round to it and that it would be better just to forget it altogether. It got shelved, somewhere or other. I gave up. The title stayed with me though, and from time to time I would mention the book to someone or just conjure up the strange atmosphere that it created for me. And then last week, when I found myself in a bookshop looking for something to read, I remembered it, but I couldn't think of the name of the Japanese author who wrote it. I felt a bit under pressure because I wasn't sure whether I'd parked my car illegally, but I googled the title anyway and there it was - The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. The bookshop had a couple of shelves that featured Japanese writers, and that's what had prompted my memory. I quickly turned up three titles by Ogawa and chose The Housekeeper and the Professor. I'm about half way through it at the moment and it confirms my view that Ogawa is a brilliant writer. It seems good to post about it now and I certainly don't want it to sit on the windowsill like The Memory Police did. It's written in the same spare prose style, conjuring up this rather strange world, not unlike our own but different, of course, unusual perhaps. 'Haunting', I think it says on the dust jacket. But what does that actually mean? I have no idea, nevertheless it is - haunting, unusual, atmospheric. The reader is drawn into this very particular sort of world, detailed but impressionistic - both at the same time. If I said it was a bit like ink wash, I hope it doesn't sound as if I'm looking at it through the eyes of a romantic orientalist. It's like ink wash because it's beautiful, delicate and at the same time slightly out of focus. Blurred. There's craft and precision; every word contributes to the whole. In this sense, I'm reminded of Small Things Like These, in fact everything by Claire Keegan, although the result couldn't be more different. And just like The Memory Police, The Housekeeper and the Professor is about remembering and forgetting although so far, at least, there isn't the same feeling of oppression, the same political undertow that haunts the pages of The Memory Police. Even though I haven't finished reading it yet, it's a real achievement, and it probably won't ever sit on the deep windowsill underneath the random stuff that accumulates there.