2 May 2009


The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Harvill Secker)

Number theory — what Gauss called “the queen of mathematics”, devoted to the study of numbers and their arcane interrelationships — does not perhaps sound like the most fruitful basis for a poignant domestic drama. And yet this novel, with its skilful admixture of tender atmospherics and stealthy education, has sold more than four million copies in its native Japan. Its unnamed characters suggest archetype or myth; its rapturous concentration on the details of weather and cooking provide a satisfyingly textured foundation.

The book is narrated by the housekeeper of the title, a single mother employed by an agency, who is assigned a new client. He lives in a dingy two-room apartment, and his suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself. This is the Professor, a brilliant mathematician who suffered brain damage in a car accident in 1975, and since then cannot remember anything for more than an hour and 20 minutes at a time. “It’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head,” the narrator explains, “and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.”

What he can remember is mathematics. He asks for her shoe size and telephone number, and reflects on the mathematical properties of each. Once he has drawn a picture of her and clipped it to his suit so that he is not altogether surprised to see her every day, he begins to induct her into number theory. We learn about primes, triangular numbers, the invention of zero, and so on, in surprisingly warm-hearted scenes of exposition. Perhaps the Professor’s most splendid speech dramatizes prime-hunting as a quest through inhospitable country. At first, the prime numbers are frequent, but:

“When you get to much bigger numbers — a million or ten 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…”

Soon the housekeeper begins to take her young son to work, and he and the old man become friends. (The professor decides to call him Root, after the square-root sign, because the top of his head is flat: his mother never refers to him by any other name.) Subsequently, nothing much happens. There is a subplot about baseball, which may excite American readers more than British ones. The housekeeper takes the Professor to get his hair cut, after which she remarks, perfectly: “For once he smelled of shaving cream rather than of paper.” A conflict with the Professor’s over-protective sister-in-law is somehow defused by the writing down of Euler’s formula on a scrap of paper. The Professor wins a contest in a mathematical magazine and waves away congratulations, saying he just “peeked in God’s notebook”. An old box is rummaged through. The characters age.

The book as a whole is an exercise in delicate understatement, of the careful arrangement of feather-light materials into a surprisingly strong structure. The pure mountain air of number theory blows gently through all its pages, even if at one point there appears to be a blip in plausibility. The housekeeper, newly entranced by “amicable numbers” (a pair of numbers A and B such that the factors of A add up to B, and vice versa), says that she spends part of one evening testing all the pairs of even numbers between 10 and 100 manually to see if they are amicable. By my calculation there are 1,035 possible pairs of even numbers between 10 and 100 inclusive, so this might take rather longer than she claims. ((All she actually needs to do is to sum the factors of each of the 46 even numbers and then look for matches, but that’s not what she says she does; and even this would take a while by hand.))

Only at length does the reader wonder whether the touching illusion that Ogawa creates — of a lasting friendship with a man whose memory only lasts 80 minutes — was just that, an illusion. One prefers to dismiss the thought, as one is sometimes reluctant to wake up from a beautiful dream.