Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Housekeeper and The Professor

In Yoko Ogawa's short, quiet, enchanting novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, we meet, not surprisingly, a housekeeper and a professor.  

Brain-damaged after a car accident, the professor can only remember 80 minutes of new memories.  He pins notes all over his clothes to remember important things, one of which is a prominent announcement about his disability.  Before his injury, the professor taught mathematics and he continues to revel in it, especially number theory.  He solves published puzzles in magazines for prize money to supplement his income.  He relates everything in the real world to the elegance of number theory.

The housekeeper, the narrator, is a single mum sent out by her agency to keep the professor's dilapidated house.  A crude picture of her soon joins the slips of paper pinned to the professor's clothes so he can remember her each morning.  

Personal relationships are not the professor's forte (who could build a relationship only remembering 80 minutes?).  However, when he asks the housekeeper her birthday and she responds  February 2 - 220 - he announces that is an amicable number with 284.  (Amicable numbers are related in that the sum of the divisors of each number is equal to the other number.)  Already the housekeeper is a friend to this reclusive man.  

When the professor discovers the housekeeper has a son at home waiting for her after school, he insists that the son should come to his house.  He names him Root because his hair style reminds him of a square root symbol, and soon forms a tender attachment to the son.

Both the son and the housekeeper awaken to the beauty and elegance of numbers under the professor's tutelage and encouragement.  We see the unschooled housekeeper spend weeks of research trying to solve a problem he sets and share her exhilaration when she cracks it.

Along the way, the reader learns quite a bit about number theory.  For me, it reminded me of the fascination I had for number theory when I was taking my math degrees and it completely escapes me why I didn't take any number theory courses at the time.

Ogawa won the Yomiuri Prize for this novel and it has been made into a film.  She has written many other novels, and this one certainly tempts me to read others.

    1 comment:

    los angeles nanny agencies said...

    The housekeeper and the professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities like the Housekeeper’s shoe size and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

    Thanks a lot.