Name of Book: The Housekeeper and the Professor, translated by Stephen Snyder.
By: Yoko Ogawa
Publisher: Japanese edition Shinchosha, English edition Picador
Copyright Date: Original Japanese edition 2003, English edition 2009
Number of Pages: 192
Format: Japanese fiction
Reason for Reading: book club selection for December
“I had no idea where to begin researching this apparently simple equation. I picked up the nearest books and began leafing through them at random. All I knew for sure was that they were math books. As I looked at them, their contents seemed beyond the comprehension of human beings. The pages and pages of complex, impenetrable calculations might have contained the secrets of the universe, copied out of God’s notebook.
In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that even the faintest light would shine through it. The lace stretches out infinitely in every direction, billowing gently in the cosmic breeze. You want desperately to touch it, hold it up to the light, rub it against your cheek. And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to earth.”
The Housekeeper is assigned to take care of the Professor, a genius mathematician who suffered a brain injury that causes his memory to only last for eighty minutes before it resets. He is stuck in 1975 and can’t hold any memories of the present. Despite his memory and those who would not have it, the Professor forges a lasting bond with Root and the Housekeeper.
I was a little slow to get into this one, but it did capture my attention after the first chapter. Ogawa’s style is somewhat sparse, but her way with words is absolutely lovely and evocative. I was good at math in school until I hit calculus. Then I checked out. However, I really do love reading about higher math when it is done well. (for example: the play Proof) Ogawa makes math beautiful. She makes math elegant. In Ogawa’s hands, math is creative and expansive; math holds mysteries and in turn, discoveries; math illuminates truths.
As much as I loved Ogawa’s writing, the story didn’t embed itself in me the way I had thought it would. I remember reading some rave reviews some time ago. The story sounded intriguing and I do love me some beautiful math. However, there was something about it that held me back from enjoying it as much as I was sure I would. Perhaps it was the lack of names, the fact that they are named for their roles in life. I suppose it made me feel more distant, although, I could see the point of leaving her characters nameless. The story almost reads as more of a fable, which could also be why I felt distant.
Despite the distance I felt to the story, the story is a beautiful, poignant rumination on the nature of memory and relationships.
This book received a lukewarm reception. No one outright disliked it, but more people were on the eh-it was okay side. I think that for some the math could have been an issue, although S. really liked the use of numbers and equations. I passionately expounded on the virtues of the beauty of the math. I marked so many passages as I went along. We discussed whether the Professor was autistic or not. It didn’t occur to me until he was at the baseball game. He spouted off facts and statistics, almost obsessively. It reminded me of the Asperger’s boy in Picoult’s House Rules and the autistic man in Adam. M., who is a music therapist, gave her opinions on why she didn’t think he was. She spoke of how some geniuses are very high functioning autistic but how others just lack some serious social skills.
An elegantly written fable about the nature of memory and relationships using math to illuminate life’s mysteries.
” ‘A real line has only one dimension, and that means it is impossible to draw on a piece of paper.
I studied the point on the pencil.
‘So you might wonder where you would ever find a real line—and the answer would be, only in here.’ Again, he pointed at his chest, just as he had when he taught us about imaginary numbers.
‘Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression—in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.’ “