The Housekeeper and the Professor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 June, 2009, 12:00am

The Housekeeper and the Professor

by Yoko Ogawa



Picador was over-egging the pudding by planting cherry blossoms on the cover of The Housekeeper and the Professor. Even if you were to ignore the author's name, Yoko Ogawa, this is so clearly a Japanese novel that no symbol is needed for confirmation. But following in the country's literary tradition little happens to the characters, the plot is slight, and a climax ... well, it just wouldn't fit.

Still, the narrative possesses a gentle grip, inviting readers to amble around the internal landscapes skilfully designed for the three main characters: the titular pair, who are never named and the housekeeper's 10-year-old son, called Root because the flatness of his head reminds the professor, a maths scholar, of the square root sign.

The three become friends after the housekeeper, a single mother, is sent to work for the professor, who lives in a cottage behind his sister-in-law's house. Nine helpers have come and gone, unable to endure their employer's handicap: his memory lasts precisely 80 minutes, although he can recall mathematical theorems he developed before his car accident 17 years before. His strange affliction requires him to attach reminder notes to the collar, cuffs and pockets of his suit and the housekeeper to introduce herself every day. She must also go through a daily numerical Q & A about her shoe size or phone number.

The housekeeper learns quickly the professor is as agile with numbers as he is awkward with people, which is why he cocoons himself in his study. When he discovers she has a son, he insists the child comes to the cottage with her. Thus begins a touching friendship between the professor and the boy, bolstered by baseball.

Though no Pythagoras, the housekeeper becomes intrigued by the language of mathematics, her fascination sparked by perfect and 'amicable' numbers (two numbers for which the sum of the factors of one is equal to the other number). Explaining their significance is where the professor comes into his prime and where the book can at times resemble a primer.

Readers who shudder at the sight of mathematical problems can blank out Ogawa's presentation of Fermat's Last Theorem, say, or Euler's theory. But following the proofs somehow enhances the narrative and perfects the equation, which is satisfying albeit in a predictable way: the housekeeper shows the professor how to apply himself in the real world, her son finds a father figure and she gains satisfaction from a menial job.

Just as balance is achieved, a misunderstanding about the housekeeper's relationship with her employer demonstrates the power of variable factors, in this case the sister-in-law. The discovery of an old photograph of her with the professor injects complexity into an otherwise simple story.

That Ogawa's slender novel has been made into a movie in Japan and sold more than 2.5 million copies there is not surprising, such is the Japanese appetite for charming stories with a nostalgic touch. However well rendered, the English translation, by Stephen Snyder, will have difficulty achieving such success in the west, where it will have to compete with bigger books in which more takes place and character development is crucial.

But that should not dissuade anyone from spending a few hours reading from cover to cover. If nothing else The Housekeeper and the Professor is a reminder of the precision of maths and the randomness of life.