The Small Connections

Over time, Japanese writers have proven themselves, time and again, the masters of slice-of-life narrative. The world of literature is riddled with such amazing and heartwarming tales that not only capture the subtleties and nuances of Japanese life and society but also the small and tender moments we barely notice when we interact with our fellows. The Japanese mastery of the slice-of-life narrative was well translated into another form, the ever-popular manga.

One fine example of a contemporary Japanese novel that finely captures these small moments is Yōko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. The titular housekeeper, the primary heroine and narrator of the narrative, is a single mother who tries to make ends meet. One day, her agency reassigned her to the house of the Professor, whose former housekeepers, eight of them, either quite or were removed by the Professor’s sister-in-law. There is, however, more than meets the eye.

At 64-years old, the Professor was once a robust and decorated university professor who specialized in number theory. However, in 1975, he suffered a brain trauma after he was involved in an unfortunate automobile accident. He can only retain memories for roughly 80 minutes. Attached all over his suit are various notes he personally wrote to remind himself of every information that is important, including the people he encounters. How will one more drastic change impact the Professor’s life?

“Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor 

After the Housekeeper learned of the Professor’s disability, she was nonplussed and still performed what was expected of her. Each morning, they are reintroduced to each other but with each passing day, they establish a routine that suits both parties. They also got to learn more about each other, their inclinations and their habits. Despite his brain trauma, the Professor his mathematical knowledge reserve remained intact. He even nicknamed the Housekeeper’s ten-year old son with a mathematical jargon, Root, from square root.

Whilst the Housekeeper and the Professor have established their own comfortable routine, small changes started taking place. These changes were invisible but seminal nonetheless. These shifts in their personalities and their lives that was further magnified when Root was introduced to the Professor. The Professor, who loves children, naturally took on the role of Root’s mathematics tutor and, to some extent, a father/grandfather figure. Root and the Professor also share the same passion for baseball, a popular Japanese pastime.

Mathematics was a subject that was finely woven into the tapestry of the novel. The Professor’s fascination for numbers, equations and mathematical theorems gave the story an interesting complexion. Numbers came to life in the discourses between the primary protagonists. Jargons such as amicable numbers, prime numbers, factorials, and imaginary numbers were casually integrated into the interactions between the Housekeeper, the Professor and Root.

Memory also played a central and seminal role in the narrative; Ogawa warmly yet powerfully treads the beauty of memory. Yes, the Professor does suffer retrograde amnesia which nearly reformatted his memory but vestiges of his former life are perpetually embedded in the mementos that he carefully kept. The Professor’s vast mathematical knowledge highlight a different facet of his life but these objects he kept from his younger days contain a heartwarming story that contrasts the intellectual endeavors of his young adult life.

“The truly correct proof is one that strikes a harmonious balance between strength and flexibility. There are plenty of proofs that are technically correct but are messy and inelegant or counterintuitive. But it’s not something you can put into words — explaining why a formula is beautiful is like trying to explain why the stars are beautiful.”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor 

Mathematics and memory are unusual subjects that were integrated into the story that gave it a distinct complexion. It was, however, the novel’s profound themes that made it flourish. On the surface, the story of the Housekeeper and the Professor seem mundane, unimpressive even. As one digs deeper one can surmise the subtle subjects Ogawa embedded into the story. As memory is a tricky thing and due to the uncertainties of life, it is important to live life in the present

At its heart, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a heartwarming tale about how our lives intersects with others. It is about the tiny but unexpected connections we make with our fellows. Our lives, after all, intersect. Ogawa, through an anonymous Housekeeper and an anonymous Professor, reminded us that our lives affect others in different ways that might be invisible to the eye. We encounter a lot of people but there will always be a select few who will influence us and change our perspective about various things and life in general.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is character-driven. The trifecta of characters were well-developed by Ogawa. They were cut from the same fabric as the typical Japanese literary character. However, at the same time, the primary characters were carefully fleshed out to resonate a more universal audience. By keeping the characters anonymous, Ogawa weaves the reader into the narrative, making the narrative appeal on a more universal scale. The Housekeeper, the Professor, and Root, can be any of us. The backstories of the Professor and the Housekeeper also grounds the narrative.

One element that made the narrative soar is Ogawa’s writing. It was light and pleasurable. Despite some heavy portions, Ogawa’s writing remained composed and light. Her writing perfectly and powerfully captured the tender connections between the characters. She related the narrative very gently, in a manner that glides through the surface. But despite this lightness in the delivery, Ogawa wrote a story that is impressionable and memorable.

“Eternal truths are ultimately indivisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.”

~ Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor 

Originally published in Japanese in 2003 as 博士の愛した数式, hakase no ai shita suushiki, The Housekeeper and the Professor won the first Hon’ya Taishō, the Japan Booksellers’ Award, in 2004. Two years later, it was adapted into a film and in 2009, its first English translation was published. What the book has accomplished has established Ogawa’s rise as a prominent name in the world of Japanese literature.

In the vast halls of the Japanese literary Pantheon that houses Kawabatas, Mishimas, Ishiguros, and Murakamis, The Housekeeper and the Professor dwarves amongst such esteemed ranks. However, in its own subtle and distinct way, it stands at par with them. It is a sweet tale that plucks the proverbial heartstrings. It reminds the readers about the connections they make with everyone, no matter how small, and how these connections influence others’ lives. We might nor realize it but we leave our imprints in the people whose lives we have touched.

Rating

92%

Characters (30%) – 29%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 13%

To be honest, even though I kept on encountering Yōko Ogawa’s works, I was reluctant to buy or read any of them. I am not even sure what shifted within me to finally pickup one of her works earlier this year. Whatever impulse seize me that time, I am glad I did for The Housekeeper and the Professor is a gem of a story. I loved this slice-of-life narrative. It was a very heartwarming story but I nearly misinterpreted the growing fondness between the Professor and the Housekeeper (HAHA!). The plot does sound predictable but Ogawa’s writing made it flourish. She managed to perfectly and vividly capture the tender moments. In her own creative way, she reminded her readers about appreciating every single moment in our life. The only criticism I have of the book was that it was too short.

P.S. I did recommend the book to some of my friends and they ended up loving the novel as well.

Book Specs

Author: Yōko Ogawa 
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publisher: Picador
Publishing Date: 2009
Number of Pages: 180
Genre: Novel, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

He is a brilliant math professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.

And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations form the past. And the numbers, in all their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities – like the Housekeeper’s shoe size – and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

About the Author

Yōko Ogawa was born on March 30, 1962 in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, Japan.

Ogawa graduated from the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Agehacho ga kowareru toki, 揚羽蝶が壊れる時 (The Breaking of the Butterfly), her first literary work was published in 1988. It won the Kaien Literary Prize. Since then she has been an active presence in the Japanese literary scene, publishing over 50 works of fiction and nonfiction.

Among Ogawa’s prestigious works are Hoteru Airisu, ホテル・アイリス (Hotel Iris, 1996, 2010 in English), Hakase no ai shita sūshiki, 博士の愛した数式 (The Housekeeper and the Professor, 2003, 2009 in English), Mīna no kōshin, ミーナの行進 (Meena’s March, 2006), and Daibingu puru, ダイヴィング・プール (The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, 1990, 2008 in English). Recently, the translated version of her 1994 novel Hisoyaka na kesshō, 密やかな結晶 (The Memory Police, 2019), was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.

For her works, Ogawa was brought home various literary awards such as 1990 Akutagawa Prize for Pregnancy Diary (Ninshin karendaa, 妊娠 カレンダー), the 2006 Tanizaki Prize for  Meena’s March (Mīna no kōshin, ミーナの行進), the 2008 Shirley Jackson Award for The Diving Pool and the 2020 American Book Award for The Memory Police.

Ogawa currently lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son.