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Yoko Ogawa's latest novel to be translated into English is The Housekeeper and the Professor, a story about a curious friendship that is illuminated through the complexity of numbers.
In love stories, logic is often an obstacle to be overlooked when it comes to fulfilling matters of the heart. It's the enemy of intuition. Nobel-prize winning economists can't calculate the probability of a relationship working out, just as mathematicians who have dedicated their lives to studying theorems can't depend on proofs to determine whether people's intentions are trustworthy. In fiction, logic-heavy endeavors typically associated with left-brain thinking -- math, science -- are depicted as contradictory to emotions that are less easy to rationalize (love, loss, loyalty). The Housekeeper and the Professor, the latest Ogawa novel to be translated into English by Stephen Snyder, sees math not for its cold rationality, but for its adventurous sense of wonder -- an adventurousness wholly consistent with human relationships and their uncertainties.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is told from the perspective of a young housekeeper who has been hired to take care of a brilliant math professor. The 64 year-old professor was forced into retirement decades earlier, after a car accident left him with only eighty minutes of short term memory. Unable to retain new information, he spends most of his time working on puzzles that he finds in mathematics journals -- meant for amateurs, but a good pastime for a man who has a photographic understanding of numbers.
When the professor interacts with strangers, he always starts with a question, for example, "What is your shoe size?" or "What is your birthday?", so he can latch onto a number and determine its (and the person's) greater significance in his world. He quickly calculates that the housekeeper's birthday, February 20th (220), and the number 284 that is engraved on his wristwatch are a rare pair of "amicable numbers," because the sum of 220's factorials (1 + 2 + 4 + 5 + 10 + 11 + 20 + 22 + 44 + 55 + 110) adds up to 284, and vice versa (284's factorials: 142 + 71 + 4 + 2 + 1 = 220). The professor delights in discovering this fact every single morning when he is reintroduced to her.
What's interesting about The Housekeeper and the Professor is that it doesn't treat logic as something that is at odds with emotional instincts, or something that devalues actions that cannot be explained. Instead, the characters use the philosophies of mathematics ("God's Notebook," they call it) to encourage a belief in greater possibilities that might be beyond their current comprehension. Their eternal curiosity is what allows the characters to maintain a meaningful relationship that, for the professor, can only occur in the present.
There's not a lot of plot in this short 180-page novel. Instead, Ogawa (pictured above) gives us a glimpse into the delicate complexities that comes with forging a friendship with a man whose long-term memory ended decades earlier. She can't leave him alone for more than 80 minutes, otherwise she'll have to reintroduce herself. No matter how much progress they make in one day, he'll never realize her efforts. The next day, they'll have to start all over again.
However, as the housekeeper takes a personal interest in his passion for mathematics, she's grateful for the opportunity to learn from him. She's able to ask him to explain theorems and proofs to her over and over again until she finally understands. The way the professor patiently explains prime numbers, perfect numbers, triangular numbers, and consecutive whole numbers that have been dubbed the Ruth-Aaron pair (after Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron's home run world records) makes the reader share in the housekeeper's awe of these otherworldly patterns and coincidences. We're inspired to appreciate the inherent beauty of numbers, even if we aren't quite moved to spend hours uncovering the mysteries for ourselves. Through her language, Ogawa somehow turns equations into poetry, numbers into human connection, and Euler's Formula into a reason to trust in a reality that memory can't confirm.
Soon into the work arrangement, the professor finds out that the housekeeper has a ten year-old son who goes home to an empty house while his mother is still at work. Horrified, the professor demands that her son come over to his house after school, and a make-shift family is slowly formed. The professor nicknames the son Root, because of his flat-top hairstyle, and even though the only way the professor remembers him each morning is by a Post-it note pinned to his suit, their connection is recharged and reignited each morning when the professor pats Root on the head.
With the introduction of Root, Ogawa explores a young boy's heartbreaking display of maturity, through Root's extensive efforts to protect the professor from feeling the pain of his lost memories. When the boy and the professor connect over their love of baseball, Root continually pretends that the professor's favorite player, Yutaka Enatsu, is coincidentally on a break just for the day -- because he can't bear to tell him that Enatsu retired long before Root was even born. Later, Root and the housekeeper go on an extensive search to find the professor a rare Enatsu collector's item, even with the knowledge that the professor wouldn't know to miss the gift, even if they failed to deliver.
First published in 2003, Ogawa's original Japanese best-selling novel was titled The Professor and his Beloved Equation. In 2006, a film adaptation of the story, told in flashback from Root's adult perspective, was made by director Takashi Koizumi, starring Akira Terao, Takanari Saito, and Ruriko Asaoka.
Others have translated the book's Japanese title to "The Professor's Formula for Success," and the English publishers toyed around with calling it "The Gift of Numbers," before settling on The Housekeeper and the Professor. Although it's not romantic love that is at stake here, the English title prioritizes the narrator (The Housekeeper) and her fragmented, cobbled-together relationship with her employer (The Professor) -- which ends up being more meaningful to her and Root than any other familial relationship she has had in her life.
By withholding proper names for any of the characters, The Housekeeper and the Professor sustains an aura of quiet mystery that extends throughout the novel. Ogawa is not interested in solving any equations for us. In fact, she often hints at crucial background information -- the professor's long-lost love, the housekeeper's complicated relationship with Root's biological father and her estrangement from her mother -- but never feels the need to elaborate. In the end, she allows us to create our own connections, to understand that some of the most fulfilling adventures may still leave us with no answers.
Date Posted: 2/20/2009