Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Professor's Beloved Equation

Came across a beautiful book by chance and fell in love with its humble characters. It reassured me that it is still possible in today’s time to write without cynicism, while still avoiding the usual sentimental clichés. The book, The Housekeeper and the Professor, written by Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa is about three characters: a housekeeper, her son, and the Professor.

We called him the Professor. And he called my son Root, because,
he said the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.

With an opening sentence like this, one is intrigued enough to read a little more, still further, one more page, until it becomes really difficult to part with the book halfway. Its charm lies entirely in the humanness and simplicity of the characters. The story is narrated by the housekeeper. She is assigned by her agency to look after the Professor, who is apparently alone, is in his seventies, and whose memory lasts only eighty minutes. It is certainly difficult to look after a man who will not remember her the next day. In a situation like this, where memory no longer helps, where there is no rigid ground for people to connect, numbers come for a rescue. They bond over mathematics.

The housekeeper is not mathematically sound, but is patient with the Professor whose effusions are also numeral. He is a dense man, has been living with this ailment for a long time, and sticks notes to his coat like: my memory lasts only eighty minutes or the housekeeper has a son. The sight of him sitting in his study doing things that matter to him, which includes hours of silent thinking, is at once sad and intriguing. With simple prose, Ogawa reveals layer after layer of the Professor’s persona, channeled through the housekeeper’s eyes - who is caring, empathic, and her observations make some of the best paragraphs of the book. If it sounds like a mystery, then it is a mystery about the human heart. There are no lurking or bygone secrets in this book; nothing the characters should come to terms with in order to conclude the story. It is like a flow. It is about people who could have ended up lonelier had they not met each other. It is about the goodness of life that makes such chance meetings possible.

Professor provides a sort of grandfather-figure for the housekeeper’s son. He teaches him mathematics and they share a common interest for baseball. The housekeeper and her son remember everything they converse with the Professor about numbers and baseball everyday, but he does not. And I leave it solely on the reader to discover how nicely Ogawa handles the growing relationship between them, with the Professor being a constant, as days gather into months, and months gather into years. There is something beyond memory that binds us humans. The book never explains what it is. It vaguely alludes to numbers as a possible connecting factor. However, there are places where things get a little unconvincing, at times the feelings of the characters appear palpable, but as a reader I am not too critical; I generally get carried away, and am always ready to suspend my disbelief if the story offers something that appeals to me. This one did.

There are numerous references to prime numbers and equations. But they don’t disturb the flow of the narrative. They are not there as the display of the author’s erudition. They merge with the story, with the characters, and aids explanation to feelings otherwise difficult to explain. It made me feel that Yoko Ogawa not only knows mathematics, but possesses a wonderful ability to lift numbers from the logical realm and carry them to the emotional zones. After I finished reading it, I realized that she must have undergone a complex thought process to produce something so simple. It is a feat.

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