THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR
By Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Picador. 180 pp. Paperback, $14
We don't pay much attention to literary news from Japan unless it's bizarre: businessmen on crowded subways reading pornographic manga, teenage girls buying cellphone romance novels by the millions. But here's an example of Japanese reading habits that's just as odd, if less sexy: Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor has sold more than 2.5 million copies in the small island nation. Oprah would have to recommend a book about Harry Potter's dying Labrador to move that many copies in the United States. What about Ogawa's novel has so excited Japanese readers? That's the most curious part.
This is a delicate, unhurried story about the friendship that develops between a brain-injured mathematician and a woman who comes every day to prepare his meals. None of the characters is ever named. Nothing romantic or even dramatic ever happens. And there is a lot of conversation about math.
Can you hear the marketing team in New York starting to cry?
And yet The Housekeeper and the Professor is strangely charming, flecked with enough wit and mystery to keep us engaged throughout. This is Ogawa's first novel to be translated into English, and Stephen Snyder has done an exceptionally elegant job. The story begins in 1992 when the narrator, a home care aide, is assigned to a new client. An elderly woman hires her to look after a brother-in-law who lives in a shabby cottage. Once a world-class mathematician, he hit his head in a car accident about 17 years ago, and the injury left him with a peculiar mental condition: "He has been unable to remember anything new," her employer explains. "His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes -- no more and no less." And then she sets down just one rule for taking care of her 64-year-old brother-in-law: "Resolve any difficulties without consulting me."
With that touch of fairy-tale surrealism, Ogawa begins a story about two isolated people who couldn't be more different. Although the professor has already run through nine housekeepers, the narrator is determined to keep this new job. "I prided myself on being a true professional," she says, but what really makes the relationship work is her tender regard for the professor and her willingness to let herself be fascinated by the only thing that fascinates him: numbers.
When she arrives at the cottage on her first day, he greets her by asking, "What's your shoe size?" Unfazed, she tells him, "Twenty-four centimeters."
"That's a sturdy number," he says, "It's a factorial of four . . . What's your telephone number?"
She gives it to him.