Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor

I’ve strayed a bit from paleontology in my postings before, but this time I’m on a path that is unlikely to lead back home. The attraction is a small novel entitled The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa. The book, recently published in an English translation from the original Japanese, is delicate, precise, and disarmingly moving.

The plot line is based on a simple conceit – a housekeeper comes to work for a much older, former mathematics professor who, as a result of a car accident 17 years ago, is unable to retain any new memory for more than 80 minutes. His long term memory stops in 1975.  During the course of the novel’s 11 chapters (11 – “an especially beautiful prime among primes,” according to the professor), connections established among the professor, the housekeeper, and her son are repeatedly threatened. In fact, due to his disability, the professor has to reestablish his relationship to the housekeeper, her son, and the immediate world every day, sometimes more than once. He wears little scraps of paper on his suit with notes reminding him of what he needs to know to make it through the day, including one telling him his memory lasts for only 80 minutes.  What does endure is his memory of mathematics and his ability to navigate in that realm.

With this challenge, the housekeeper struggles to maintain the “family” she’s created with the professor and her son, an effort motivated by her own experiences as the daughter of a single mother, and now as a single mother herself. The moments of domesticity are comforting to her and to the reader.

The novel explores the question of what endures, and it’s not human relationships. None of the main characters is given a proper name, suggesting how ephemeral people are. The housekeeper's son goes by the nickname Root because the top of his head is flat, reminding the professor of the square root sign. Poignantly, the professor long ago wrote a dedication on the cover of a proof – “ For N, with my eternal love. Never forget.” Though he remembers N since she dates from his pre-1975 world, does his love endure? There is love at the root of this story, but are we to believe love is eternal? Hardly, unless memories exist forever. “Never forget.” Yet, we do and are forgotten.

The only proper names we encounter are those of actual people – renowned mathematicians, a couple of political figures, many Japanese baseball players, and one or two U.S. ballplayers. With exception of the politicians, the others with proper names are individuals imbued with mathematics – the mathematicians naturally, and the baseball players because the essence of their sport, more so than all others, can be captured mathematically.

To the professor, mathematics endures; it is mathematics that is a source of eternal truth. “There were numbers before human beings – before the world itself was formed,” he says. Of his past work in mathematics, he tells the housekeeper,
I uncovered propositions that existed out there long before we were born. It’s like copying truth from God’s notebook, though we aren’t always sure where to find this notebook or when it will be open.
In the course of the novel, the professor gently teaches, at times with formulas and diagrams, some of what he has uncovered in that notebook. The housekeeper comes to understand why she can learn from the professor – parenthetically, I have to note that her understanding is one that has been lost to the U.S. educational system. It is not just the professor’s enthusiasm and his knowledge, and not just his ability to guide. Ironically, his teaching is aided by his disability which enables the housekeeper to learn at her own pace.
But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain – not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher. There was something profound in his love for math. And it helped that he forgot what he’d taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it.
She also recognizes that his ability to admit what he does not know rests at the center of his ability to teach.

A very special book.

[Note:  This posting was edited long after it was first put up.  A second reading of a book will do that to your ideas which mutate and sometimes don't endure.]

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