The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Professor is an expert in Mathematics.  After a car accident his memory is blocked in 1975.  He lives alone in a little house in the back of his sister-in-law’s garden.  His main img_2902problem is that his short term memory only lasts 80 minutes.  As a result, he wears a black suit everyday that he pins little notes on to remind him of things he has just experienced.  This is how he can remember his housekeeper and her son Root.

The Housekeeper and the Professor was the last book I read with my book club this 2015-2016 school year.  What a pleasant quiet read to end on.  This will be the third book I’ve read from Yoko Ogawa who is a brilliant writer.  I read Revenge, Hotel Iris, and then this one.  The books were totally different in subject matter, but each as passionate as the other.  The Housekeeper and the Professor sensitively explores memory, memories, being understood, and relationships.

An element that stands out the most is the fact that only one person has a name and that’s Root, the Housekeeper’s son.  The Professor gave him this name “because…the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.”  “With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.”  (The Housekeeper and the Professor, p.1) Ogawa has chosen to give no one else a name.  I believe this is so that she immerses the reader into the story quickly, while the focal point being Root.  Along with the series of math problems that essentially the reader can try to solve along with the main characters, Ogawa is trying to invite us into the Professor’s world (how he looks at people and situations) and the Houskeeper’s world(what she has to go through to connect and understand the Professor).  The Professor lives life in rapport with numbers, equations, and their relationship to each other.  He uses numbers to comprehend life around himself.  He tells his Housekeeper, “Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contra-diction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.” (The Housekeeper and the Professor, p.100)  However, love and memory are always filled with contradiction.  Besides the precedent themes, Ogawa is surely making commentary on what is considered to be a real family and  is it important how it is composed.

As the story goes on we witness a profound bond that is growing between these three individuals.  It’s touching, thought-provoking, and truly poetic.  With each page and each situation there is a comparison with an equation or something related to Mathematics.  Now for me this entire book could have been a disaster, since I hate Mathematics; but somehow, despite that,  I was compelled to read about the relationship that was growing between these three characters.  I’m sure you will get a tremendous amount of meaning and emotion from the story too.  It’s hard to believe Ogawa could say so much in so few pages, 180 to be exact.  Just a simple reminder to all those authors out there who feel the need to write 500+page books, get to the point or risk that nobody gets it and worse gives up.

Yoko Ogawa is a Japanese author who has written over 40+ books.  She is known for her simplistic but poignant writing style full of detail.  Her protagonists are often women depicting the roles of women in Japanese society.  She also covers other themes relating to Japanese culture.  If you haven’t read anything by her, absolutely make the next book that you pick up be from Ogawa.  You won’t be disappointed.

My copy: The Housekeeper and the Professor, paperback, 180 pages

Rating:  **** 1/2 stars

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At the moment on You Tube in booktubia everybody seems to be reading something Japanese whether it be manga or Kazuo Ishiguro or Haruki Murakami.  I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of their works but Remains of the Day and 1Q84 (Books 1-3) stare me down every time I pass my bookshelf.  So in honour of all this love for Japanese literature I decided to read something from long ago, something that I’d read in high school my senior year.  It’s Patriotism by Yukio Mishima.

7420324Patriotism is a novelette packed with poignant and intense images.  Disguised in simple packaging, with its stark white cover splattered with a few drops of blood, it looks as if someone really did bleed on it.  The purity and straightforwardness of the cover echoes the story.  A lieutenant in the Japanese army, Shinji Takeyama decides to commit suicide, seppuku after learning that his friends have become mutineers.  Since he knows his duty will be to hunt them down and to kill them, he is torn between his duty as lieutenant and friendship.  Reiko, his wife, follows him in this sudden tragic act, for loyalty and devotion are the roles of Japanese women who are married to soldiers.  Shinji and Reiko end their lives together in a ritual that evokes passion, devotion, and patriotism.

“ON THE TWENTY-EIGHTH of February 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Kanoe Transport Battalion-profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers in the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops-took his officer’s sword ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, Yotsuya Ward.  His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death.” (Patriotism, p. 3) 

The scene is set and we are read about the few hours that pass before Shinji and Reiko’s tragic end.  We start hearing about their wedding day.  The descriptions depict their differences and how they complete each other. “Shinji is described as strong, severe looking, wide-eyed, standing protectively next to his bride.  Whereas, Reiko is described as round soft eyes, beautiful, sensuous, and refined.” (Patriotism, p. 5)  They complete each other perfectly.  The narrator contemplates that people will look at their wedding picture when they are found after their suicide and think that maybe they were cursed; that their union was too good to be true.

The suicide is an orchestrated ritual that will mesmerize you and shock you.  They seem to be acting as methodical robots toward their death but it’s clear that their love for each other is deep and passionate.  They perform simple everyday tasks before the end trying to kindle the bit of life they have left.  Not once does Reiko question her husband’s decision but soldiers on steadfast, while adding last-minute touches to the dramatic finale.

The images in this novel are striking and symbolic, all on a back drop of white and red like the cover of the book.  Mishima takes the reader through this horrid ritual but makes it appear to be art at its perfection.  Disturbing.  The attention to detail is consistent with Japanese art and culture.  The images of red pouring over the pages will invade your serenity.  The color red symbolises hardiness, bravery, strength, like in the Japanese flag.  The color white in the Japanese flag stands for  peace and honesty, which Shinji and Reiko both find in patriotism.  In essence, that is nothing more than being loyal.

Yukio Mishima (1925-1970), born Kimitake Hiraoka, was one of the most prolific Japanese writers of the 20th century.  He was a short story writer, novelist,  playwright, poet, essayist, and critic.  Some of the principal themes he wrote about were sexuality, political change, and death.  Having been nominated three times for the Nobel Prize for literature, it is believed he lost in 1968 because of his right-wing activities.  Mishima was a jack-of-all-trades because he was a body builder and model as well.  His death is probably just as well-known as some of his great work because he committed suicide, seppuku, after a failed coup d’état.  Patriotism contains a lot of who Mishima was and what he believed in.

Title: Patriotism

Genre:  Japanese Literature/Novelette/Cultural/Philosophy

Published:  1966

Edition:  A New Directions Pearl

Pages: 57

Language:  English

My rating:  * * * *