Monday, October 7, 2013

Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and The Professor: what to love about numbers

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko OgawaTHE Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa whom I'd never heard of before. (Have you ever done that: take on a book written by someone you have no idea of? That was how I discovered David Bezmogis when I picked his short story collection, Natasha. When I read about him in The New Yorker I felt a certain sense of accomplishment, as if it was I who had discovered him first.) I only picked the book from the list because the title sounded neat. I like reading novels by Japanese authors—Murakami, Kawabata, and Ishiguro among them. There's a zen-like, uncluttered rhythm to their prose, perfect to ward off the stresses of urbanity.

The novel is about a housekeeper who works for a recluse mathematician. The Professor lives in a dilapidated cottage. Years ago he sustained multiple injuries due to a car crash. As a result his memory has been compromised. "It's as if he has a single eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes—no more and no less."

Think Fifty First Dates, sans the romance.

The Professor remains unnamed throughout the novel, but he is a character who's hard to forget. An expert on number theory, he loves numbers and spends the rest of his day pondering on them. To an ordinary person, what life could be more boring? But the Professor treats these numbers as if they were his friends. He sees a connection between and among them.

Every day, when the housekeeper arrives, the Professor asks her when her birthday is. She says, February 20 (220). Then the Professor notices the number etched on the underside of his watch (284). The Professor gets extraordinarily excited, for he sees the connection: they're amicable numbers—that is, they are "two different numbers so related that the sum of the proper divisors of each is equal to the other number."

When the housekeeper brings her ten-year old son to the cottage the Professor calls him Root because, he says, "the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign."

The mother and son grow fond of the Professor. They visit him on a daily basis, learning from him, pleasing him with questions about the meaning of numbers and of the universe. The thrill in reading the novel is in the re-learning of many things—prime numbers, Euler's formula, Fermat's equations, the number zero— and seeing them with new eyes. Mathematics is a way of knowing the Creator of the Universe.

"I uncovered propositions that existed out there long before we were born. It's like copying truths from God's notebook, though we aren't always sure where to find the notebook or when it will be open."

I was never really exceptional in mathematics. As a kid I hated numbers. I still can't mentally add or subtract, which is why I have no idea if I'm getting the exact change when I pay for my jeepney fare. My friends punish me by asking me to collect the money when we eat in restaurants. It was only when I discovered algebra (finally, the arrival of the alphabet!) and calculus that I began to enjoy Math.

Whether you love or despise numbers, this exceptional short novel, The Housekeeper and the Professor, is worth a try. My brother Ralph and my other literary friends, who are probably more mathematically inept than me (and I write that with all the love in my heart), will profit greatly from it.



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