‘Esoteric equations and calculations sound beautiful and beguiling’ – The Housekeeper + The Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Yoko Ogawa is more than a little prolific in her native Japanese, having penned more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction in as many years – not to mention the sizeable collection of awards that have been presented to her – but, to date, only a handful of her novels have been translated into English. The Housekeeper + The Professor is the first I’ve encountered, and it’s written with such a delicate, yet emotional touch, that I think I’ll be hunting down more of her novels.  It’s a shame that she’s not more widely known over here (unless I’m particularly ignorant) because the simplicity of her style and (in this novel, certainly) the recognisable and domestic themes she takes on, would be lapped up, I think, by an English-speaking audience. You heard it here first.

The Housekeeper + The Professor tells the story of a young single mother who goes to work as the housekeeper of an aging former professor of mathematics. The Professor was involved in a car-accident many years before, resulting in Memento-like memory loss, so that his short-term memory lasts only eighty minutes. Post-it notes pinned to his clothing, he is re-introduced to his world (and his housekeeper) every morning, and, unable to continue teaching, he spends his time solving maths puzzles in specialist journals.  The housekeeper and her young son –  nicknamed Root by the Professor because the child’s flat head reminds the old man of the mathematical symbol for a square root – grow to be fascinated not only by the Professor himself, but also by the world of numbers and formulae to which he introduces them. Ogawa’s choice of maths as the novel’s recurring motif is a canny one – the fixity and eternal nature of the numbers contrasts poignantly with the Professor’s deteriorating condition and with the unpredictable, unstable life of the housekeeper, struggling to raise a child on her own. Even Ogawa’s title is a clever touch – one of the core messages here is that memory’s not the only basis for friendships and loving relationships; numbers and maths link her characters, and so her use of the plus sign rather than an ampersand in the title is very apt.

Like the best popular science books, Ogawa manages to make esoteric equations and calculations sound beautiful and beguiling. The Professor gives Root and his mother mathematical puzzles to solve, and the challenge is there for the reader, too; including all the problems could have seemed dry and self-indulgent, but instead they present a stimulating riddle. Following the housekeeper as she tries to think her way into the Professor’s peculiar numerical world, it’s easy for the reader to get swept along. But it’s not all academic exercises and brain-games – the novel contains some really poignant moments. The Professor diving in front of Root to protect him from a stray baseball, the child’s eleventh birthday party, the housekeeper’s careful transcription of the Professor’s precious memory-aids when they fade or are damaged – these show people leading careful and restricted, but very loving lives. The Professor’s condition is heart-breaking, but his determination to quietly cope, and his good-humoured affection for Root (and for numbers) stops the text from getting too pathetic or miserable – though I defy anyone not to well up towards the end.

It’s ultimately a quiet novel – the events, such as they are, aren’t hugely dramatic, and the strength of the work lies instead in the steady accumulation of emotion and tiny details as time passes.  It’s understated and poetic. The lack of action will, no doubt, irritate some readers, and there’s also not a whole lot about Japanese culture or society here, so if you’re reading it out of socio-cultural or anthropological curiosity, you’ll be disappointed. But all the same, I’d urge you to be patient and let the characters and the simple routines of their lives wash over you. For a novel where none of the characters are even properly named, it’s all surprisingly memorable.  And give the maths a go!  You might pick up a few facts about prime numbers, amicable numbers, abundant or deficient numbers…  Seriously.

Any Cop?: This is a well-written study of a sad and unusual situation; the simplistic, pared-down language and the use of mathematics make it stand out and prevent it from being too soppy. Oddly, it’s the second mathematical novel I’ve read so far this year (the other was The Solitude of Prime Numbers), and this one’s come out on top. Even if you’re a hardened maths-o-phobe, I bet this will make you waver, and maybe, even, shed a tear.

Valerie O’Riordan

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