Sunday, July 11, 2010

Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper & the Professor                        yoko ogawa

Like most people I  was introduced to maths at school, that cocky kid, who took great delight in showing you up, in a bit of light bullying, was quite happy to use weapons (algebra,statistics). But I left school, started work etc & never really met him/her again, there was no reason to.

So when I came across this book, my immediate reaction was MATHS!!. But everything I read about this book, stated  how wonderful it was, fellow bloggers, paper reviewers even other writers (for the most part) only had good things to say & to add to the conspiracy, my library had a copy !.

The book tells the tale of a single mother, hired to care for a retired maths professor, who is suffering from Anterograde amnesia, this means he cannot create new memories or has a limited span. In the professor's case he has an 80 minute time span after which all is lost to him. This was caused by an auto crash in 1975, so everything before then he can remember for example; all the baseball players he would have known have long since retired (this last bit is relevant).

Through the mother, we learn how the professor copes,  the strategies he uses such as pinning notes to his suit, the maths problems he spends all day solving etc.  We also  look on whilst there develops this sweet innocent relationship between the two, spoken through the language of maths, intensified when her son comes into the picture & the Professor forms an immediate bond with the lad, partly brought on by a shared love of base ball, except the Prof only knows the players pre 1975 & the boy supports the teams featured now (I told you it was relevant), watching how the lad skirts this issue is one the delights of this book .

We follow this family, for that's what they become,  through several highs & lows until the professors death. Very little happens in this book, it’s like catching a glance into someone's daily routine, the usual confrontations, moments of joy, the sadness & the sheer absurdity of every day existence, compressed into a cycle of 80 minutes . We see the Professor meeting the Housekeeper anew each day & watch him re- acquaint himself using numbers to communicate & as a safeguard.
“I was always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time, & so every morning he was appropriately shy & reserved. He would ask my shoe size or telephone number, or perhaps my zip code, the registration number of my bicycle, or the number of brush strokes in the characters of my name; & whatever the number, he invariably found some significance in it”

So, although maths plays a large part in this novel, it’s there to aid communication, this is how the professor deals with the world, his coping mechanism, his courtship, his poetry. There is a line in a song by Simon & Garfunkel  – I am a rock
“ I have my books & my poetry to protect me,I am shielded in my armour,  hiding in my room, safe within my tomb, I touch no one & no one touches me”
Except the House keeper with her son do touch him,  & it’s maths that allows this process to start  & communicates it to us, as onlookers into their lives.
 Yoko  Ogawa

Kenzaburo Oe has said,, “Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating”. It is this subtlety that provides the magic in this book, there are no fireworks, the magic is gentle, sleight of hand & like good sleight of hand,  no matter how close in you go you don’t see how its done, you just see the magic.

On a different note this book is just as much about Baseball as it is Maths.

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Book Bird Dog said...

I enjoyed this book but didn't try any of the math problems :) Read it for Japanese Literature Challenge 3 last year, hosted by

@parridhlantern said...

Yeah, despite enjoying the book,Maths & I are only on nodding terms

Gina said...

Math and I parted ways when I reached the age of 16.

setiawati said...

agree with you

Bellezza said...

It makes me smile to see how a few comments here reflect a separation
from Math, and I thought I was the only one! Anyway, this book was so meaningful to me, for the mood you said, but also for the way that Ogawa depicted family. I loved how you put that quote in from I Am a Rock, and the analysis to the way that Math does connect them, allow them to communicate. It's a lovely novel, and I enjoyed your thoughtful review.

Anonymous said...

This book is the reading club book this month at my local bookstore, and I was thinking of skipping it simply because I'm swamped with other work/reading, but perhaps I'll give it a go after all. It'd be nice to read a book with some baseball in it, after all of Joseph O'Neill's beautiful writing about Cricket in Netherland which didn't help me understand the sport better at all.

Still completely baffled by cricket. And mostly baffled by maths. But to read about anything.

@parridhlantern said...

Bellezza, thanks for your comments, the S&G lyrics just came to me & seemed appropriate. Although thats probably to me as well as the professor ( & alot of readers)
Gina & Setiawati, luckily a maths obsession is not needed to enjoy this book
book bird dog,checked out your review of the book, left comment.
Theartof reading, If you like or have an interest in baseball, you will like this book, but its like the maths, not neccessary.
Ps like the poetry on your blog.

Elsje said...

Hi, thnx for the reaction on my blog. I read this book in Dutch, and my review was in Dutch as well. Hope you understood that I agree: this is a truly lovely book. I awarded it 4 stars (out of a maximum of 5 :-) )
I do have to add to your review that the maths are not the heart of the book, although they are mentioned pretty often. For me, the central theme seemed more something like: how to cope in a world that is essentially very complicated (for the housekeeper and her son: the maths; for the professor: the fact that his memory no longer works in the way that it should).
I hope you understand what I mean, as my native tongue is Dutch...
Elsje, Utrecht, The Netherlands

@parridhlantern said...

Hi Elsje, I totally agree with that maths are not the heart of the book, that was partly my reasoning, the fact that although it revolved around maths it wasn't necessary to like maths to like,the book. Also although maths is not the heart, it is tongue, ie it is the means of communication.
Thanks for your comment.
I hope I understood the nuance's of your post, as I used Google translation.