Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, February 15, 2009
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.
"That's the total number of primes between one and one hundred million."
Needless to say, she has never worked for anyone like this, and at first she has no idea what he's talking about. Every morning he greets her with the same numerical interview because, remember, he has no idea who she is. "I was always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time." He wears only one suit, and it's completely covered in scraps of paper -- "some yellowing or crumbling" -- to remind him of "the things he absolutely had to remember." All these little notes pinned to his clothes make him rustle softly as he moves from room to room.
That's as close as Ogawa gets to comedy in this novel. She's more interested in quieter kinds of delight, particularly the pleasure of numbers, which provide a series of metaphors for the friendships that develop. The most touching involves the professor and the housekeeper's 11-year-old son, whom she begins bringing along to work. That's a violation of the agency's policy, but the professor adores her little boy -- anew, everyday -- and nicknames him Root because his flat-top head reminds him of a square root sign. "He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers," the housekeeper tells us. "For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world."
Yes, there are formulas throughout these pages, strings of numbers -- real and imaginary -- and explanations of primes and logarithms, Fermat's Last Theorem and Euler's formula, but no matter how much you hated math in high school, you can't help but be seduced by the housekeeper's enthusiasm for what she discovers. Solving a little problem the professor sets out for her and Root, she says, "At that moment I experienced a kind of revelation for the first time in my life, a sort of miracle. In the midst of a vast field of numbers, a straight path opened before my eyes. A light was shining at the end, leading me on, and I knew then that it was the path to enlightenment."
Ogawa never minimizes the professor's limitations or the difficulty of caring for him, but she has a sublime sense of his value, his enduring capacity for affection and his ability to illuminate the world of numbers. Of course, befriending a man who forgets who you are every day inspires a heart-breaking kind of pathos, but the housekeeper never dwells on that sadness. She's more impressed by the professor's special insight into the mathematical underpinnings of the universe, what she calls "God's notebooks." In contrast to the dreary and drearily common portrayal of older patients, The Housekeeper and the Professor is much closer to the quirky and deeply satisfying relationships my wife has told me about from the many years she worked in a Long Island retirement home: the blind woman who knitted us an afghan as a wedding present, the octogenarian who collected everyone's watermelon rinds and pickled them. Perhaps Ogawa's Japanese fans, who are several years ahead of us on the inevitable shuffle toward a geriatric society, are responding to her quiet spiritual wisdom. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.