I read excellent reviews of ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa by some of my fellow book bloggers and so couldn’t resist it. So, I put aside my reading of ‘War and Peace’ for a while, went in search of ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’, grabbed one of the two copies which was there on the bookshelf of my favourite bookshop and came back and read it in one day. Here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below a summary of the book as given in the back cover of the book.
He is a brilliant maths professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury some seventeen years ago, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.
She is a sensitive but astute young housekeeper with a ten-year-old son, who is entrusted to take care of him.
Each morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them. The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. He devises clever maths riddles – based on her shoe size or her birthday – and the numbers, in all their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her little boy. With each new equation, the three lost souls forge an affection more mysterious than imaginary numbers, and a bond that runs deeper than memory.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family where one did not exist before.
What I think
I liked ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ very much. The basic premise of the story (the Professor having a short-term memory of only eighty minutes) reminded me of the movie ’50 first dates’ and also of the movie ‘Memento’ and its Indian inspiration ‘Ghajini’.
The book has just three main characters, tells a beautiful story and is a paean sung in honour of mathematics. The Professor of the story is a professor of number theory and so he frequently talks about numbers, the way they connect different real-world objects, primes, and some of the fascinating fundamental ideas of mathematics. The character of the Professor is said to be inspired by the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos. The book touches on the beauty and elegance of mathematics and some of the mathematical structures including the music of primes. Mathematics forms a beautiful backdrop to the story and is never overwhelming. Reading the book brought back a lot of nostalgic memories for me – of some of my favourite mathematics teachers and professors and some of my favourite topics in mathematics.
The book also talks about baseball in Japan and its players and its legends and the mathematics behind it, as the main characters in the story share an interest in baseball.
An interesting thing that I noticed in the story was that the names of the characters is not mentioned. It was interesting because one doesn’t really notice this. Isn’t it wonderful to know that names are not required to tell a good story? Isn’t it wonderful that the human mind can ignore such a thing and still experience beauty?
The NYT (New York Times) review of the book says : “This is one of those books written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water. But even in the clearest waters can lurk currents you don’t see until you are in them.” Beautifully put and very true.
I have just one complaint against the book – or rather the edition of the book that I bought. The American edition of the book had a beautiful picture of cherry blossoms in the cover with a sky blue background. The edition of the book I have is a British edition and it has some kind of art on the cover. I would have loved the cherry blossoms more 🙂
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.
The Professor never really seemed to care whether we figured out the right answer to a problem. He preferred our wild, desperate guesses to silence, and he was even more delighted when those guesses led to new problems that took us beyond the original one. He had a special feeling for what he called the “correct miscalculation,” for he believed that mistakes were often as revealing as the right answers.
(Comment : This reminded me of a time in college, when I was reading a textbook on one of my favourite courses in college called ‘Abstract Algebra’ (it is a bit different from normal Algebra and is closer to set theory) called ‘Topics in Algebra’ by I.N.Herstein. In one of the chapters Herstein had marked one of the end-of-chapter problems with multiple stars and had mentioned in his comment below it that no one he knew, including himself, had solved this problem with the knowledge gained till that point in the book and he had given this problem there to allow students to explore new alleys of the mathematical world and discover new, strange and beautiful secrets and arrive at interesting questions. It was one of the most beautiful, interesting and inspiring comments that I had read in a textbook at that time. For the record, I couldn’t solve that problem too :))
That evening, after I’d got home and put my son to bed, I decided to look for “amicable numbers” on my own. I wanted to see whether they are really as rare as the Professor had said, and since it was just a matter of writing out factors and adding them up, I was sure I could do it, even though I’d never graduated from high school.
But I soon realized what I was up against. Following the Professor’s suggestion, I tried using my intuition to pick likely pairs, but I had no luck. I stuck to even numbers at first, thinking the factors would be easier to find, and I tried every pair between ten and one hundred. Then I expanded my search to odd numbers, and then to three-digit numbers as well, still to no effect. Far from being amicable, the numbers seemed to turn their backs on each other, and I couldn’t find a pair with even the most tenuous connection – let alone this wonderfully intimate one. The Professor was right : my birthday and his watch had overcome great trials and tribulations to meet each other in the vast sea of numbers.
“A problem has a rhythm of its own, just like a piece of music,” the Professor said. “Once you get the rhythm, you get the sense of the problem as a whole, and you can see where the traps might be waiting.”
I am not sure why I became so absorbed in a child’s math problem with no practical value. At first, I was conscious of wanting to please the Professor, but gradually that feeling faded and I realized it had become a battle between the problem and me. When I woke in the morning, the equation was waiting – 1+2+3+…..+9+10 = 55 – and it followed me all through the day, as though it had burned itself into my retina and could not be ignored.
At first, it was just a small distraction, but it quickly became an obsession. Only a few people know the mystery concealed in this formula, and the rest of us go to our graves without even suspecting there is a secret to be revealed. But by some whim of fate, I had found it, and now knocked at the door, asking to be let in. Though I had never suspected it, from the moment I’d been dispatched by the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, I had been on a mission toward the door…
Since he was very small, he’d often had to console me when I came home from work in tears – when I’d been accused of stealing, or called incompetent, or had the food I’d made thrown away right in front of me. “You’re beautiful, Momma,” he’d say, his voice full of conviction, “It’ll be okay.” This was what he always said when he comforted me. “I’m a beauty?” I would ask, and he’d say, feigning astonishment, “Sure you are. Didn’t you know?” More than once I’d pretended to be crying just to hear these words; and he’d always play along willingly.
“…when you get to much bigger numbers – a million or ten million – you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart.”
“That’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it – only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search…until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water…”
“The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. Of course, lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem. Research on ellipses made it possible to determine the orbits of the planets, and Einstein used non-Euclidean geometry to describe the form of the universe. Even prime numbers were used during the war to create codes – to cite a regrettable example. But those things aren’t the goal of mathematics. The only goal is to discover the truth.” The Professor always said the word truth in the same tone as the word mathematics.
If you added 1 to e elevated to the power of π times i, you got 0 : eπi +1 = 0
I looked at the Professor’s note again. A number that cycled on forever and another vague figure that never revealed its true nature now traced a short and elegant trajectory to a single point. Though there was no circle in evidence, π had descended from somewhere to join hands with e . There they rested, slumped against each other, and it only remained for a human being to add 1, and the world suddenly changed. Everything resolved into nothing, zero.
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.
(Comment : Beautiful passage, isn’t it? I haven’t seen a mathematical formula described so beautifully before!)
The Professor set up the ironing board on the arms of his easy chair and went to work. From the way he managed the cord to the way he set the temperature, you could tell that he knew what he was doing. He spread out the cloth, and, like the good mathematician he was, divided it into sixteen equal folds.
He sprayed each section with the water bottle, held his hand near the iron to make sure it wasn’t too hot, gripped the handle rightly, and pressed down carefully to avoid damaging the fabric. There was a certain rhythm to the way the iron slid across the board. His brow furrowed and his nostrils flared as he forced the wrinkles to submit to his will. He worked with precision and conviction, and even a kind of affection. His ironing seemed highly rational, with a constant speed that allowed him to get the best results with the least effort; all the economy and elegance of his mathematical proofs performed right there on the ironing board.
You can find the two reviews, that originally inspired me to read the book, at these links :
You can read the NYT review of the book, here.
I liked reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ very much. It will go into my list of favourite books, and I think I will read it again. I have explored only three Japanese writers till now – Natsuo Kirino, Haruki Murakami (a little bit) and now Yoko Ogawa – and I have found that they write with a simple style and express beautiful ideas. I will try to get another Yoko Ogawa book which is available in English translation (it is called ‘The Diving Pool’) and also explore a few other books by Japanese writers. Maybe I will also read a little bit on mathematics too – probably ‘The Music of Primes’ by Marcus du Sautoy or ‘Infinite Ascent : A short history of mathematics’ by David Berlinkski or ‘Men of Mathematics’ by E.T.Bell.
If you like mathematics and / or are a fan of Japanese literature, you will enjoy this book.
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