Mathematics, Imagination, And Memory
Yoko Ogawa's "The Housekeeper and the Professor" (2007) is a short, peaceful novel that combines broad themes of reason and poetry with an exploration of the intimacy of family. Set in contemporary Japan, the book features three nameless characters and their relationships. The growing personal relationship among the characters is threaded in with the broader, eternal relationships that pervade reality, as seen in this novel, through mathematics.
A young woman in her thirties narrates the story. With little education, she has a humble job as a housekeeper which enables her to support herself and her ten-year old son. The housekeeper is given the assignment to work for a mathematician, 64, a former professor who lives in a small cottage near the much larger home of his sister-in-law. As a result of an automobile accident some 17 years earlier, the professor's short-term memory is limited to 80 minutes. After that time, his short-term memory is erased and begins from scratch all over again. The professor's deep, long-term memory of mathematics remains intact and unscathed by his loss of short-term memory.
The story traces the way the relationship between the housekeeper and the professor grows from a limited relationship framed by the professor's limitations of memory. The housekeeper is to provide simple cleaning and cooking, no more no less. Gradually a close familial relationship develops among the housekeeper, professor, and boy and expands to include the professor's sister-in-law. One of the keys to the developing relationship is mathematics. The professor introduces both the housekeeper and the son to so of the intricacies of mathematics involving square roots (the young boy is given the nickname "Root"), factors, and imaginary numbers. The professor is especially enamored of prime numbers and their properties. The mathematical discussions of the book culminate in a way that manages to be novelistically effective with a consideration of Euler's theorem. The intricacies of this difficult theory are used in the book to suggest the underlying unity of all reality as well as the unity of human relationships. The professor is a gifted teacher who allows his companions to discover and to appreciate mathematical truths for themselves, as Socrates does with the young boy in Plato's dialogue "Meno". There are indeed strong Platonic overtones in this short novel.
Mathematics also plays a role in this family story in the love that both the professor and Root share for baseball, probably the most statistically driven of sports. Baseball is loved in Japan, the United States, and many other countries. This book includes moving scenes of the little family growing closer through love of the game. For all his knowledge of the statistics of the game, the professor attends a baseball game for the first time in an important scene of this book. He learns something of the world of fact beyond the extensive statistical lore of baseball.
Mathematics is shown in this book as both reason and poetry. The book suggests that mathematics is an underlying key to reality and to truth beyond the world of appearances and differences -- a highly Platonic, spiritual, and controversial view. Reason and imagination are also shown as the unifying factors that unite people and that help to create love.
This book has a great deal of depth for a short novel. It is also enchanting and deceptively simple to read. I learned a great deal from several of the reader reviews which brought me to this work. "The Housekeeper and the Professor" will appeal to readers with a strong philosophical bent.