Monday, June 17, 2013

The maid and the mathematician

Yoko Ogawa is the author of more than 20 novels in Japan. In The Housekeeper and the Professor she tells the story of an unlikely family.

The narrator of this novel is a fatherless young woman, the single mother of a ten-year-old boy. Her early pregnancy forced her to leave school, and now she works for a housekeeping agency. She knows she is lucky to have a steady job, and is happy to be assigned to cook and clean for an elderly former professor of mathematics.

Due to injuries suffered in a car accident in 1975, the professor’s short-term memory is damaged - he can only remember 80 minutes at a time. His suit is covered with little reminder notes, attached to him with binder clips. The housekeeper must introduce herself to him every day. It seems that the only constant in the professor’s life is mathematics - the beauty and elegance of numbers, and the complex relationships between them.

Even without the short-term memory issue, there are plenty of barriers that would prevent these three people - the housekeeper, her son (nicknamed Root), and the mathematician - from forming any sort of relationship. There is a deep divide between their social classes and educational levels.

But using the language of mathematics, they succeed in bridging these problems and, against all odds, they become a family. Though I’m far from a student of mathematics, I found the conversations in which the professor explains number theory to the housekeeper and her son to be comprehensible and surprisingly poetic.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a story of kindness, generosity, and the love of knowledge. By the standards of a blockbuster thriller, The Housekeeper and the Professor is an uneventful book, but Ogawa manages to find drama in scenes of the professor’s ironing a tablecloth, or of housekeeper’s quest to find him a gift. It is an elegant and tender read.

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