Friday, 21 February 2014

Book Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa’s only natural that Europe takes up a central place here on Edith’s Miscellany, but there’s no reason why I should omit literature from other continents. Past year I already reviewed a few books from non-European countries, notably during My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013, and this year I want to continue roaming the literary globe. Today’s review spotlights Asia, more precisely Japan. At first I meant to dedicate this post to 彼女について by Banana Yoshimoto which I read in the German translation titled Ihre Nacht. Alas, when I set out to write my review, I found that it isn’t yet available in English. So I switched to The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa instead and be assured that this novel is just as worthy an example of contemporary Japanese literature. 

Yōko Ogawa (小川 洋子) was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, Japan, in March 1962. She made her literary debut in 1988 with the prize novel 揚羽蝶が壊れる時 (The Breaking of the Butterfly). Since then the prolific writer brought out dozens of novels, short stories and essays in Japan, many of them award-winning, but only few of them available in English. The Diving Pool: Three Novellas (ダイヴィング・プール: 1991), Hotel Iris (ホテル・アイリス: 1996), and The Housekeeper and the Professor (博士の愛した数式: 2003) count among her internationally most successful books. More of her novels and short stories have been translated into other languages like German, French, Italian or Polish. The author’s latest work published in English is the novel Revenge (寡黙な死骸みだらな弔い). Yōko Ogawa lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan, with her family. 

The story of The Housekeeper and the Professor is that of the two characters already mentioned in the title plus the housekeeper’s ten-year-old son and the poetry of mathematics. It begins in March 1992 when the narrator takes up her job as the professor’s housekeeper in a shabby back yard garden pavilion. The sixty-four-year-old man used to be a renowned mathematician at a university until a serious car accident in 1975 left him with an amazing kind of failing memory. He can remember everything that happened before the accident and the last eighty minutes of his life, but the period in-between is lost. Every person entering his universe outside the eighty-minute window is a stranger to him and he has to get to know him or her from scratch. When the narrator arrives on her first morning the professor doesn’t care about her name. Instead he wants to know first her shoe size and then her telephone number connecting them immediately with other figures, the faculty 4 in the first and the total count of prime numbers between 1 and 100 000 000 in the latter case. The housekeeper is intrigued by the professor’s capacity to see figures of everyday life in a mathematical light. She soon gets used to the daily ritual of numbers and learns to deal with his memory lapses. One day she mentions her ten-year-old son and he insists that the boy comes to the pavilion after school to be in his mother’s care. As it turns out the professor loves children. It is the beginning of a strange friendship held together by the beauty of mathematics and the love for baseball. It lasts through different troubles and long beyond the end of the housekeeper’s employment. 

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a first-person narrative from the point of view of the housekeeper. Mirroring the professor’s inability to keep in mind the names of people surrounding him, the characters of the book remain nameless and are usually identified by their relations to the professor or simply by their profession. The only close exception is the housekeeper’s son whom the professor nicknames “Root” ever again because his flat crane reminds him of the radical sign √. This may also reflect the fact that except mathematics there is hardly anything stable left in the professor’s universe which is flooded by thousands of new things virtually in every moment and always without a warning. Like many people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia the professor only has the present and a remote past which often makes things complicated for his surroundings, especially his housekeeper, but Yōko Ogawa shows that where there is a will, there is a way. It only needs respect along with flexibility to cope with the situation and to see the precious person behind the man with the annoyingly looping memory loss who constantly talks about numbers. It’s possible to have fun with him. It’s possible to like him as the person who he is. Yōko Ogawa tells the professor’s story with much empathy and equally great expertise in mathematics. For me it has been a long time – more than twenty-five years – since I last dealt with mathematics and I must admit that sometimes it was a bit of a challenge to get back into that frame of mind. Luckily the author uses a very clear and unpretentious language and doesn’t try to impress with eccentricities of style. 

To cut a long story short, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa has been a very pleasurable read, a simple story which is much less bizarre than it may seem at first. Since I enjoyed the book, I warmly recommend it for reading. It’s worth the time!

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