Monday, 25 January 2010

The House-Keeper & the Professor


The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a tender exploration of the relationship between a housekeeper, her client the maths Professor and her son, Root, who is so-called by the Professor because his flat head reminds him of a square root sign. The Professor suffered brain-damage in a car accident seventeen years previously and lives with only eighty minutes of short-term memory, which is both a problematic and poignant factor in their day-to-day lives together.

Translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a lyrically touching novel. Very gently told, Ogawa uses maths to create heartfelt connections between the Housekeeper, her son and the Professor. I enjoyed the simplistic style to the story and how it broke down maths to connect these disparate people together; the Housekeeper becomes interested in maths, on working out problems and noticing patterns whilst the Professor sees the world through numbers. Using complex equations metaphorically throughout the novel was effective for me; I didn't think that it was simply a vehicle but was an interesting means of connection between an employer and employee in a subservient role who may have otherwise been unable to communicate. It has been a long time since I studied maths and I liked the refresher course and enjoyed seeing how Ogawa, through her characters, drew links between maths and life.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a gentle novel, simply rendered with only four nameless characters and an unseen baseball player. It is beautiful meditation on the nature and limitations of memory and also on what can make familial relationships and what they can teach us; it is subtly written and the sadness of the Professor's short-term memory is never overwhelmingly tragic or trite but resonates in its understated form. Culturally, the novel taught me the Japanese fascination with baseball; educationally it made me appreciate maths once more; emotionally it touched me.

Some favourite and/or key passages:

I happened to glance at some of the notes to his suit: " ... the failure of the analytic method...," "... the function of the elliptical curve...." Shuffled in among the fragments of obscure numbers and symbols and words was one scrap that even I could understand. From the stains and bent corners of the paper and the rusted edges of the binder clip, I could tell that this one had been attached to the Professor for a long time: "My memory lasts only eighty minutes," it read.

I don't know what the evening star meant to him, perhaps finding it in the sky soothed his nerves, or maybe it was simply a habit. And I don't know how he could see it so long before anyone else-he barely noticed the food I set right in front of him. For whatever reason, he would point his withered finger at a single spot in the vast sky-always the right place, as I eventually discovered-and that spot had significance for him and no one else.

Euler's formula shone like a shooting star in the night sky, or like a line of poetry carved on the wall of a dark cave. I slipped the Professor's note into my wallet, strangely moved by the beauty of those few symbols. As I headed down the library stairs, I turned back to look. The mathematics stacks were as silent and empty as ever-apparently no one suspected the riches hidden there.



28 comments:

Amanda said...

I loved this book so much!

verity said...

This does sound like a gentle book. How was the translation - sometimes I find translations detract from the book, other times they add to it

Paperback Reader said...

Amanda, it is a beautiful book and I think it took a little piece of my heart too :).

Verity, it is incredibly gentle, but that's not a bad thing; sometimes I love a quiet, heartwarming story like Brooklyn or After the Fire, A Still Small Voice,

The translation was very good, I thought, and I had no issues with it; I was surprised to learn that it is the same translator of Out by Natsuo Kirino, which Jackie thought a poor translation.

Laura said...

Great review -- this is one I hope to read sometime this year.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

Four nameless characters? I'm intrigued to see how that works!

I really hope that I can get hold of a copy of this book soon, but am worried by the gentleness you describe. I hope I still enjoy it.

On the whole I thought Out was well translated, but it did have a few Japanese phrases that weren't translated very well. I will be interested to see if I find the same problems with this book.

Paperback Reader said...

Thanks, Laura; I hope you enjoy it.

Jackie, it works so well that you are almost oblivious to it; they are each given a moniker such as the Professor, the Housekeeper, the Widow and Root is a nickname. It's an incredibly universal effect and adds more to the novel than it detracts.

I hope you enjoy it too but do go into it knowing that it is a exceptionally gentle book but such a wonderful examination of families and how we sometimes make our own.

Good to know about the Out translation. I remember you mentioning the bento boxes and I can't recall anything similar done in this although, to be fair, there aren't many specific Japanese indicators excluding chopsticks, noodles and some Japanese names (the baseball team).

Jennifer @ Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

Sounds like a great read. I love the cover as well.

Steph said...

I've only read good things about this novel, so I'm hoping I'll be able to find a copy, as I do want to read more Asian fiction in particular. Also, I tend to quite enjoy math (well, enjoy might be the wrong word... I'm good at it, let's put it that way!) and I love novels that deal with issues of memory.

One thing though, I think Yoko Ogawa is a woman!

Paperback Reader said...

Jennifer, I love the cover too; it reminds me of cherry blossom.

Steph, thanks for pointing out my pronoun mistake! It was an error in the writing and not in my perception of writer - I thought of Yoko Ono instantly so knew she was a woman!
I've corrected it.

I'm good at math too (or I was) so I did like its inclusion. I also enjoy reading about memory and I think that you will really like this for that reason. I don't think the eighty minutes limitation to the Professor's short-term memory is flawless but it is an effective and touching premise.

Vivienne said...

I am beginning to think I will be the last person to read this one!

JoAnn said...

Everybody seems to love this one! Hope I can get to it sometime this year.

Paperback Reader said...

Vivienne, I hope that you have a chance to read it soon!

JoAnn, hopefully 2010 will be the year that you read it; I'm planning to get to a lot of books this year that I didn't make time for last year.

savidgereads said...

I am desperate to read this, I have heard so many wonderful things about it over the blogosphere and the premise sounds quirky and delightful. Also the fact its emotionally touching ticks another box for me too. Lovely review Claire.

Tony said...

I liked it, but not as unequivocally as most seem to; at times, I found it a little too light and fluffy (see review for more details!).

Molly said...

Gentle is such an apt description of this writing style! I am quite sure this will be one of my top favorite books for 2010!

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

Yet another positive review of this book. It's definitely time for me to track down a copy. Thanks for posting your favourite passages too - seeing the style of writing makes me even more interested to pick it up.

lena said...

I really enjoyed this one. I'm so glad I took Natalie's advice and joined in on the Hello Japan fun to read it (:

I have a sneaking suspicion that this will be on my favorite list at the end of the year.

Glad you enjoyed it as well, Claire (:

Jenny said...

Oh wow, I didn't realize this was translated. I've heard many lovely things about it - did you find the translation okay?

Paperback Reader said...

Simon, it is definitely emotionally touching and I hope you manage to read it soon.

Tony, I was afraid that I wouldn't unequivocally like it but it subtly tugged at my heart-strings. I shall read your reservations shortly.

Molly, I have high hopes for 2010 so I am not prepared to state that yet! Gentle is the best way I could describe it.

Claire, I almost always quote passages to give people an insight into the writing style as I know it helps me to gain a feel for the book and whether I will enjoy reading it.

Lena, I'm so glad that Nat chose this as one of the Hello Japan read-alongs and it gave me the push I needed to read it.
As I said to Molly, I have high hopes for 2010 books and although I loved this, I am also hoping that my year hasn't peaked too early!

Jenny, the translation worked for me completely. I'm no expert and I don't know Japanese to compare but I think a good job was done; moreover, the maths explanations were understandable and not, well, lost in translation.

Mrs. B. said...

This sounds like a beautiful story. I'll definitely check it out.

Rebecca Reid said...

I liked this book too! not a total favorite, but definitely touching.

Paperback Reader said...

Mrs. B, it is beautiful and heartfelt.
I hope that you enjoy it.

Rebecca, it spoke to me, touched me and absorbed me but, like you, I can't see it being a lifelong favourite but definitely a quietly, reflective one that I will remember fondly.

Nymeth said...

The writing is so beautiful! And I just love gentle books. I wish I could have joined the readalong, but I'll definitely still get to it before too long.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I'm sure you will reach it soon and find it gentle and beautiful; the writing is very comforting, so much so that I wanted to curl up in it.

gnoegnoe said...

You're absolutely right to put the translator in the spotlights!!! he did such a great job I didn't think about it ;)

Paperback Reader said...

gnoe, I didn't either - it seemed so flawless! I'm trying to pay credit, however, to translators and the difficult job they have in bringing us an author's words using different ones.

Samantha said...

Thanks for the lovely review Claire. You and Kiss a Cloud have assured that this one will be purchased soon!

Paperback Reader said...

You're welcome, Samantha! I hope you enjoy it as much as Claire and I both did.