Thursday, March 6, 2014

The truly correct proof is one that strikes a harmonious balance between strength and flexibility

During a recent(ish) trip to Boston my friend lent me a copy of The Housekeep and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, which is awesome because I love hanging out with friends AND getting new books to read. Particularly ones that have been on my radar, but sort of the outskirts. I knew of it, but it wasn't something I was searching out.

This is the story of, surprise, a professor and a housekeeper. And the housekeeper's son. There are a few other characters but they are not the focus. It's just these three.

The Professor was a math professor. He hasn't been a professor in a long time, not since he was in a car accident that robbed him of his memory. Now his memory only lasts 80 minutes. He mostly gets by using notes attached all over his suit with little reminders about his day, who people are, and of course of his condition.

His memory problem necessitates the Housekeeper. She does more than just clean the house. She's there all day long, cleaning, cooking, and running errands for the Professor. She's hired by the Professor's sister-in-law. He lives in a cottage behind her main house, and tells the Housekeeper that she does not  want to be disturbed by any problems. If there is an issue with the Professor she would like the Housekeeper to work it out on her own.

When the Professor learns the Housekeeper has a young son that spends his afternoons at home alone while she's working, he insists the boy come to his house until it's time for the Housekeeper to go home, because a child should be with his mother. And so the Housekeeper's son Root becomes a fixture at the house and a favorite of the Professor.

There isn't too much of a plot here, but that doesn't mean this was a slow book. I finished it in a day (half on my morning commute, half in the evening). I loved watching the characters interact. And while math is far from a favorite subject of mine, the Professor's enthusiasm and joy for numbers almost makes me want to learn more math. I liked the conversation between the Professor and the Housekeeper.

"The person who discovered amicable numbers must have been a genius."
"You might say that: it was Pythagoras, in the sixth century B.C."
"Did they have numbers that long ago?"
"Of course! Did you think they were invented in the nineteenth century? There were numbers before human beings - before the world itself was formed."

The Professor is constantly working on complicated mathematical proofs and problems from various math journals and sending them away for prizes, although he really doesn't care about the prizes. He's happy to be solving the problems and he teaches the Housekeeper and Root the joy in finding these numerical connections and solving these mysteries.

It's a beautifully written story and I suppose some of that credit goes to Stephen Snyder for his translation from the original Japanese.

If you're looking fora  quiet and quick read, I would recommend this one. And I promise, a love of math is not necessary to enjoy.

Title quote from page 16

Ogawa, Yoko. The Housekeeper and the Professor. Picador, 2003. Translated by Stephen Snyder.