A Sensitive, Delicate, Tender Novel about — er, Mathematics

 

I picked it up twice, and twice put it back down again. The reason was simple. If you opened the book and fluttered through the pages, far too many mathematical equations were interspersed in the dialogue. Not an encouraging sight. No, thank you. I read for pleasure, and math problems are certainly not pleasure.

  Not usually, at least. Because when I finally decided to give Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor a chance, it turned out to be hypnotic – a plunge into subjects I know nothing about, advanced mathematics and Japanese baseball, and yet so human, filled with so many telling, brilliant touches, with the math parts bordering on poetry and the baseball parts used as a language between an old man and a boy who both adore each other. Every once in a while you step out of your reading rut and take a chance, and get massively rewarded. Case in point. What looks like a woman’s novel – cherry blossoms on the cover! – turns out to be a simple yet profound, utterly masterful exploration of friendship.

Here’s a slender, newly-translated Japanese novel about three utterly likeable human beings, doing what human beings do best: gently exploring each other, and helping each other to find happiness. We’re talking essentially a cast of three: a twenty-eight-year-old housekeeper and single parent who’s telling the story, her ten-year-old son, and a genius mathematics professor who has suffered a car accident and now has a damaged memory which only lasts for eighty minutes. Little notes are pinned all over his jacket reminding him of important continuity facts. Every morning he wakes up disoriented and alone, and spends his days writing elaborate proofs for mathematics contests in magazines.

Like the housekeeper, the reader is captivated by the unexpected lyrical philosophy behind numbers. “In mathematics,” says the Professor, “the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows…” Beyond the mysteries of perfect numbers are the mysteries of the Professor. Why is he so worried to find out the housekeeper’s son has been left home alone after school, enough to insist that the boy come to his house every afternoon from now on? Why does the Professor become an emotional wreck when the boy cuts his hand, rushing him to the nearest medical facility carried on his back?

The novel is essentially the young housekeeper’s description of the two men in her life, her employer and her son, and the fragile friendship they build around their love of the Tigers baseball team, laced with the thrill of prime numbers, the glorious human creation of zero, and the mathematical search for “the secrets of the universe, copied out of God’s notebook.” Ogawa has the perfect light touch, never milking her dramatic situations, keeping it all realistic and honest. It’s all exquisitely touching, and impossible to read dry-eyed, a warm-hearted tribute to the unexpected ways that damaged people can change our lives.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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