Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Heart of Mathematics; Mathematics of the Heart

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 74
Yoko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

When a young single mother gets an agency referral to keep house for an aging, reclusive mathematician, she considers it another by-the-book job. This attitude only increases when she discovers her client has no love for anything but mathematics and number sets. However, when the mathematician discovers she has a young, intellectually struggling son waiting at home, he demands she bring her boy around daily. The change this sudden family wreaks, in a man who otherwise cannot change, is instantaneous and remarkable.

Yoko Ogawa's best-known novel, at least internationally, is the sort of project publishers release for sheer love of books. It's unlikely to be made into a blockbuster film, admits no franchise possibility, and has no fist fights or car chases. (It was adapted into a 2006 film, a quiet, understated study that’s never had an American release.) But it's the kind of book that makes me want to read, and it will enjoy the loyalty of anyone who reads because the word is a joy in itself.

Ogawa creates a world remarkably free of names. The first-person narrator is called only "I," and she keeps house for an invalid genius she only terms "the Professor." These two form a non-traditional family with the Housekeeper's son, nicknamed Root, in "a small city on the Inland Sea." The Housekeeper and her son build a bond with the Professor based on loyalty and his love of teaching. Their every accomplishment brings effusive praise from the old man they're actually caring for.

But the trick is that the Professor has a head injury that has scrambled his limbic system. Nothing entering his head leaves a mark lasting longer than eighty minutes. The Professor needs someone to care for, while the Housekeeper and Root long for a man in their lives to complete their troubled family. The Professor's yin finds the Housekeeper's yang. Root and the Housekeeper are inspired to be better people by the Professor, and seek after his praise, even knowing as they do that in eighty minutes he won't even remember.

Besides the sudden, unexpected family, this novel also deals heavily with mathematics. The Professor loves baseball, but because of his injury, cannot watch entire games. Instead, he reconstructs games from stats on baseball cards. This book involves the first clear, vernacular definitions I’d ever encountered of perfect numbers, Napier’s constant, and other math concepts. But this isn’t a math textbook, and has reportedly frustrated teachers who’ve used it as one. Rather, it’s a love story to math’s human implications.

The only proper nouns in this novel are prominent mathematicians and Japanese baseball heroes. The actual characters are named by their humanistic roles: housekeeper, sister-in-law, professor. In this regard, the novel recalls Expressionistic plays of the early Twentieth Century, peopled by characters with names like "Boss," "Stranger," and "Woman #4." Or perhaps it's more like Aesop's fables. But it clearly signals that these characters relate according to their responsibilities, not their identities.

The Professor must surely be one of the most interesting characters in recent literature. Like the mathematical constants he loves, he simply exists, unmoved by a world that continues changing without him. The only changes he faces come late in the novel, when his injury deteriorates further. In some ways, he requires coddling, lest an ignorant world break him. But in his absolute, incontestable stability, he requires others to change, to grow into his reality. Like math, his constancy is a change agent for an uneducated world.

Reputedly, Ogawa based her characterization of the Professor on Paul Erdős, a Hungarian mathematician who eschewed virtually all human contact in favor of math. But Ogawa refuses to make the Professor a bog-standard eccentric. Math, for the Professor, is not a drab science; it's a work of art and a mode of prayer. And it is this love of beauty and spirituality that inspires the Housekeeper and Root. Math is a tool that brings them together as a family and motivates them to reach for something higher.

The cerebral and episodic story, like many Japanese art novels, doesn't burst like a string of dynamite. Readers weaned on the cinematic style of paperback American fiction will seek for sturm und drang which never arrives. But lovers of language magic will find a refreshing rest from breathless American fiction. This novel’s self-selecting audience comprises those who truly love when words changes the way we see our world. Stunning, punchy, smart and touching. A book that reminds readers that we read for a reason.

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