Sunday, 30 August 2009

62 - 'The Housekeeper and the Professor' by Yoko Ogawa

Apologies to the numerous participants in the 'Japanese Literature Challenge' who have already reviewed Ms. Ogawa's book for not reading your comments yet; I wanted to come to this book with a clear mind, and I promise that I'll read all the other reviews once this has been posted. Well, fairly soon afterwards anyway (family duties permitting, I'm a very busy person, you know).

Anyway, my second book in recent weeks with a housekeeper at the centre of the tale was slightly less murderous than the first, but just as well constructed. Ogawa's short novel tells the tale of a housekeeper employed to clean up for a mathematics professor who lost his long-term memory after a car crash. The housekeeper's son, whom the Professor nicknames 'Root' as his head is flat like the square root sign (and with whom I share a birthday!), strikes up an unlikely friendship with the old man, and in the course of the 11 chapters, spread over 180 pages, the three of them form a strange kind of family unit.
One of the things which bind Root and the Professor together is baseball, a sport which is especially fond of numbers and statistics. With his memory stuck firmly in 1975, the Professor frequently asks about his favourite player, Enatsu (a legendary pitcher who wore the perfect number 28 on his back). Through white lies and evasive tactics, Root and his mother share their hobby with the professor without alerting him to the fact that the times he remembers have long passed.

In this rather sparse work, Ogawa looks at the theme of family, in particular what makes a family. Root's eager adoption of the Professor as a friend can be traced back to the absence of a father figure in his life, and the Housekeeper may also be looking for someone to fill this role. In the film version, there is apparently a stronger sense of attachment to the Professor shown by the Housekeeper, but in the novel this is more implicit than described.

The role of mathematics is also important in this book as it serves as a metaphor for the situations the characters find themselves in. The Professor tells the Housekeeper that numbers underpin and support the real world; however, knowing this does not help you to understand that world. The Housekeeper realises the truth of this when going about her daily chores; knowing that the serial number of a fridge is a prime number will not stop the ice-cream inside from melting... In another example, the Professor explains how important triangles are to the complex formulae of further mathematics - a further parallel to the triangle of characters at the forefront of this story.

Parallels with Murakami are unavoidable; anonymous characters, chance meetings which change lives... The brevity of this novel reminded me somewhat of 'After Dark. However, I don't feel that the author quite succeeded with what she set out to achieve. The maths parts were very interesting (and, as someone who used to love pure maths at school, I relished the challenge of the Professor's simple puzzles!), but they became more of a gimmick as the book progressed. I also thought that too much was left unsaid. Much more needed to be made of the Housekeeper, by far the least developed of the three characters, and while I understand that the style was meant to leave many things unspoken, just because things are unspoken, doesn't mean they are actually there...

Despite these shortcomings, Ogawa's novel is well worth a read, and I would like to flick through her collection of novellas, 'The Diving Pool', when I get the chance. I think that knowing more about Ogawa's world will help me appreciate more what she is trying to say in her work, just as having read the weightier Murakami novels helps you to appreciate his shorter pieces. Before I go though, I just thought I'd make one last comment on the mathematics side of the story. As Root and the Housekeeper learn from the Professor, numbers are beautiful, and finding patterns in those numbers is even better. When browsing through some of the numbers from my review, I noticed the following: if you take my (and Root's) birthday (11th of September, or 119) minus the number of chapters (11) multiplied by Root's age (10), subtract my age on my upcoming birthday (35), add the Number of pages (180) divided by the number of major characters (3), and add Enatsu's perfect shirt number (28)...

119 - (11 x 10) - 35 + (180/3) + 28 = 62

But what' so special about 62 you may ask?

Look at the heading for this post...

Aren't numbers wonderful ;)