Forget about class divisions or gender boundaries, generation gaps or religious beliefs; in my view of the world what really separates us is whether we are numbers people or words people. I’m firmly in the latter camp. Give me a piece of text to analyse, interpret and possibly improve and I am in my element. Confront me with a bunch of numbers whether in table or graph or columns and my brain shrivels.
It was always so. At school I was the one in class who handed a question along the lines of “if a bath fills at x number of gallons per minute and empties at x gallons per minute, how long before the bath will be full?, would answer “a damm sight quicker if you left the plug in the hole.”
I do admire people who can see a set of numbers and instantly detect patterns and connections. I can get there after a fashion – you have to if you don’t want to look entirely stupid in a business meeting – but it takes a lot of blood and sweat.
What the hell you might then think am I doing reading a book about a maths professor? And one that also contains numbers and real maths problems with concepts like prime numbers and logarithms? The first time they appeared in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor I actually got out my pencil and tried to work out the problem (I would have loved to have been able to do it in my head just like the young boy whose mother gets to clean house for the maths guru but no such luck). So struck was I with another little puzzle about prime numbers and the fact I could even understand it, that I challenged my 17-year-old nephew who is a maths whizz kid to solve it. He didn’t. I didn’t push my luck though with the next batch of questions which looked much harder. I know my limits. Instead I just enjoyed the words which flowed around the numbers and just accepted that there are people in the world who might get even more out of this book if they understood both the numbers and the words.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is set in modern day Japan and features a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident. Now confined to a dingy two-room apartment his brain can retain only 80 minutes worth of memory. His suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself to make up for his incomplete memory. He can still solve maths problems and in fact spends much of his day tackling competitions in specialist journals. But ask him to remember the name of his cleaner or even who this woman is who turns up at his door, and he is lost.
It’s as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.
Over the years he’s gone through a lot of housekeepers. They find him too strange to stick around particularly when seemingly innocuous questions like “what is your birthday’ or ‘what is your shoe size?’ are transformed into lessons about number theory. The narrator of this novella is housekeeper number 10 (we never learn her name). At first she too finds him strange but comes to respect him and to like him through witnessing his passion for maths and his kindness towards her son, a boy he nicknames Root because the shape of his head reminds him of the mathematical square root symbol. Slowly the three form a connection as the Professor instills his knowledge and his enthusiasm for number patterns with mother and child. Inevitably we learn that this knowledge provides the foundation for the boy’s future career.
He’s a brilliant tutor – the kind I wish I’d had in my school days. Explaining prime numbers he draws an analogy with a hunt through inhospitable countryside
When you get to much bigger numbers – a million or 10 million – you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart […] that’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it – only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search … until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water …
Just as steadily the book began to take a hold on me too with its skilful mixture of understated atmosphere and its attention to the minutea of life. There are plenty of feel-good moments when mother and son scour the city for a momento of the Professor’s beloved baseball player so they can mark the old man’s birthday. Occasionally the narrative stretches the boundaries of plausibility – at one point the housekeeper gets to grips with Fermat’s Last Theorem with the aid of a few pages in a library book.
Is this knowledge an illusion? The novella certainly has a dreamlike, almost mythical quality to it with its idea of a wise old man leading a younger mind to enlightenment. Even so most of us can appreciate that when knowledge is acquired, when we discover that what had so far seemed complex and unattainable, is now revealed. Perhaps for us, as for the housekeeper “the world suddenly changed” at that moment. I’ve not given up hope that one day I’ll understand logarithms et al but I rather suspect it will take me a lot longer than the few hours it took the housekeeper.
Author: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
Published: original title Hakase no Aishita Suushiki 2003 by Shinchosa Co Ltd
Translated: from Japanese by Stephen Snyder for Vintage Books 2010
Length: 180 pages
My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016