The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa
January 25, 2010 § 38 Comments
“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.”
~ The Professor
The original Japanese title for this book is 博士の愛した数式, which I think loosely translates into “The Professor’s Beloved Mathematical Equation”. And before The Housekeeper and the Professor was translated and published, there was an earlier edition which was intended to have been named “The Gift of Numbers”.
I think, just those titles alone are enough to tell you, roughly, what this book might be about. But there’s more to the book than just math.
In March 1992, a housekeeper is assigned to care for a man, a brilliant math professor. He is sloppy and eccentric, as you would expect most professors to be. But he has one major problem: his memory ‘tape’, as it were, only works up to 1975. And for whatever else that happened after that, his memory only spans 80 minutes.
It’s a difficult relationship to sustain, it would seem, especially when there’s a need for the housekeeper to constantly reintroduce herself to the professor. How do you make friends with someone who can never remember what happened yesterday?
And what about the professor himself? How does he live, knowing that whatever memories he has, are from many years ago? How painful is it for him to realise that what he feels only happened yesterday, must have happened so long before? And it must be awful to have someone describe something that happened yesterday, but have no memory of it himself.
In fact, is it even odd that the professor might feel so uncomfortable going out of his house? His memories are those from almost 20 years ago. Everything would be so unfamiliar, and yet he cannot ever remember how it all changed.
The most beautiful part of the book, I feel, is the relationship that happens almost so naturally between the housekeeper’s 10-year-old son, nicknamed Root, and the professor. With each passing day, even though the professor meets Root like as if for the first time, his affection for the boy is always so genuine, so heartfelt. Even without a lasting memory, it felt like the professor had an attachment for Root that was just so real.
It was actually precisely because the professor treated Root so kindly and with so much love, in spite of not remembering him in any way, that filled my heart up.
I don’t think I can do this book justice, really. The writing was just beautiful, and the way the professor talks about math in this book just makes it feel like magic.
“In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.”
~ The Professor
It’s a book not just about math, or about the professor’s love of math. It’s also about the relationships between people. About how people are drawn together. About the fact that the here and the now is as important, if not perhaps more, than what has already past.
And yet, the room was filled by a kind of stillness. Not simply an absence of noise, but an accumulation of layers of silence, untouched by fallen hair or mold, silence that the Professor left behind as he wandered through the numbers, silence like a clear lake hidden in the depths of the forest.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is a very quiet, very subtle book. At the same time, it’s a page-turner, a book you just don’t want to put down. How often do you come across books like this?
For: Japanese Literature Challenge 3, Japanese Literature Book Group with Tanabata.
Note: I wish more of Ogawa’s works were being translated into English, or being published as books. Pregnancy Calendar (translated as Pregnancy Diary) won the Akutagawa Prize in 1990, and can be read online HERE. I’m just curious why it isn’t published in book form, like so many other works that won this award.