Japanese Novel “The Housekeeper and the Professor” by Yoko Ogawa
Hakase no aishita sushiki (博士の愛した数式/The housekeeper and the professor)
Yoko Ogawa (小川洋子)
It is certainly remarkable to see a mainstream novel in which mathematics plays an important role in the story. However, if you are a hardcore math-loving person, you will probably find The Housekeeper and the Professor somewhat disappointing because the argument has no problem to be solved or mystery to be unlocked. Readers who are interested in the mathematics should try Marcus du Sautoy’s The Music of the Primes, Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem or Paul Hoffman’s The man who loved only numbers instead.
Yoko Ogawa’s story is a calm and subtle slice-of-life drama about the creation of a bond for life, catalyzed by maths and baseball. Thanks to this surprising combination of topics, the protagonists’ lives are increasingly intertwined, and even us may end up entangled with the housekeeper, her son and the 64-year-old insane professor. From this perspective, The Housekeeper and the Professor is about human relationships. Pitchers and prime numbers are just mere artifact to link us all together.
The forge of human bonds and the discovery of mathematical truth are somehow similar to a flower, as they all need time and care to make it grow and bloom, delicate as they are. And that is not a simple task when your daily life is hectic and your behaviour regulated. That’s why the housekeeper is a heroine: despite of being a single mother (because in Japan a single mother can be a tragedy, for they are socially discriminated and often their income falls below the poverty line), she defied the Japanese hierarchical norm of not getting too close and familiar with a customer; despite of being a domestic worker, she allowed her curiosity to discover the beauty of mathematics. And because she never gave up, an everlasting bond grew and bloomed.
In Japan, stereotypically a kind and collective society, there is a cruel gap between a bond and a relationship. If a person is soto (外), out of the boundaries of family and closest friends, you don’t need to care about him. You are only expected to treat him politely, follow the rules and never show your true feelings. Of course, the other person will treat you the same way in return. In this novel, the author is giving an example of how rich can become our lives if we allow ourselves to break this invisible wall of the uchi-soto (内/外) relation. Under the daunting melody of the prime numbers and the noise of the crowds cheering Enatsu’s home-runs (Yutaka Enatsu/ 江夏豊 was one of the popular baseball player in Japan), I can hear Ogawa’s subconscious cry, probably shared by many other artists: don’t just behave like a preprogrammed android, be a little bit more human.
This novel became a film in 2006 directed by Takashi Koizumi (小泉堯史) as The professor’s beloved equation. I haven´t seen it but both inside and outside of Japan, it had quite good reviews at 7.4-8/10. Here is the trailer.
Review by Sai Tokuryo