Sunday, April 19, 2009
The beauty of numbers... For some of us numbers are a dark mystery that we know can solve the problem of man flying to the moon but we must believe this on faith. For others math is a like a series of beautiful brushstrokes on a piece of lined paper that form a glimpse into a perfect piece of artwork. In Yoko Ogawa's book The Housekeeper and the Professor the professor is the later- a brilliant mathematician that loves numbers. But he has a bit of a problem- his memory only lasts 80 minutes. And this fact is prominently pinned as a note to his suit jacket, so he can 'remember' that fact. Actually anything of importance is pinned to his suit jacket, so that he looks like a walking bulletin board. But this book isn't really about mathematics, but a story about the love shared by the virtual family of the professor, the housekeeper who is hired to take care of the professor, and the housekeepers 10 yr. old son. And it is a story of hope, where you can find meaning in your life no matter what your circumstances.
As a result of a traumatic brain injury sustained in an auto accident almost 20 years ago, the professor, who is just referred to as 'the professor' thru-out the whole story, has a memory that lasts only 80 minutes. The Housekeeper is the woman the professors sister-in-law has hired to take care of him. And every morning when the Housekeeper reports for work, they reintroduce themselves and start anew. But the professors mind is still alive with the equations of his past and lives his life by sharing his love of mathematics with the housekeeper and her 10 year old son, Root, who the professor calls Root because his head is flat on top like the square root symbol. Simple numbers like the housekeeper's birthday of Feb. 20th become a lesson in natural numbers.... " 220 ( 2 - 20 ) is divisible by 1 and 220, with nothing left over, so 1 and 220 are factors of 220. And Natural Numbers always have 1 and itself as factors... " Or The Professor's favorite baseball player's number is the number 28 - a perfect number! (what's a perfect number? You'll have to read the book to find out.....)
But the beauty of this story is it's simplicity. The characters have no names, except for Root which is really a nickname, and the majority of the story takes place within the walls of a run down cottage that the professor lives in. The Housekeeper's empathy towards the professor slowly transforms him from a lonely 2 dimensional hermit, to a character with a bit of flesh & blood, with feelings and thoughts that you believe he's finally being able to express out loud because of the love of a hired housekeeper and her fatherless son.
This simply is a charming book. Each sentence is like a whisper of a thought, hardly detectable, but slowly builds into a touching & memorable story. Because the novel isn't a sweeping epic, we get an intimate feel for the characters and their lives in a small space of time. At only 180 pages it becomes a perfect afternoon read....
Labels: book musings The Housekeeper and the Professor review