Title: The Housekeeper and the Professor
Japanese Title: 博士の愛した数式
Author: Ogawa Yōko (小川洋子)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2003 (Japan)
Yay! I’m so happy! Finally, another Ogawa Yōko translation! Ogawa Yōko is one of the most interesting writers working in Japan right now, and her popularity only increases with each passing year. A recent search on Amazon.fr yielded more than a dozen translations of Ogawa’s work into French, and I understand that there are just as many translations of her books into German. I feel a little jealous, but, in any case, it’s better to have two books in English than none at all. Ogawa’s prose is hyper-intelligent yet subtle, and her narratives are very Raymond Carver: very simple at first glance, but oh what wonders lurk under the surface. As he did in The Diving Pool, veteran translator Stephen Snyder renders Ogawa’s Japanese into lucid yet multilayered English.
I consider The Housekeeper and the Professor to be close to the perfect “Japanese” novel. There is a bit of drama, but it is notable only for its understatement, and there is almost no plot to speak of; the novel simply ends when one of the main characters dies. The character development is what keeps the narrative going; and, in fact, it’s actually hard to put down. Quite simply, a single mother, who works as a housekeeper to make ends meet, is given an assignment by her agency to take care of a retired math professor, who lives in a small house by himself at the edge of his family’s property. The catch is that the professor’s short-term memory only lasts for eighty minutes. Despite this, the housekeeper manages to establish a good relationship with the professor, whose abbreviated life is enriched by his two great passions, math and baseball. When the professor learns that his housekeeper has a son who must wait for her return from work alone at home, he insists that she brings the boy with her to his house. The professor bonds with the housekeeper’s son over their mutual interest in baseball, and both the boy and his mother come to share an appreciation for numbers and equations with the professor. And that’s it, at least on the surface.
Under the surface, there are a significant number of interesting yet unstated relationships that will intrigue the reader, as well as an implicit question concerning the constantly developing meaning of family in postmodern society. The professor’s mini-lectures on prime numbers, amicable numbers, perfect numbers, and so on are actually quite interesting, as is the way that the old man uses number games to deal with the stress and awkwardness caused by his memory disorder. Just as the housekeeper and her son come to place a great value on these numbers and number games, the reader cannot help but start to see numbers as protagonists of sorts, or at least as oblique symbols concerning the relationship of human beings to one another. Really, like The Diving Pool before it, The Housekeeper and the Professor is good literature and a good read, and Picador has ensured that the paperback as a physical object is quite beautiful as well. I can’t recommend this book enough. Go get it! And, if you haven’t read The Diving Pool yet, go get that one, too!