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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Hotel Iris

This is the first book I’ve read by Yoko Ogawa.  I’m not often drawn to Japanese literature but since my book club chose The Housekeeper + The Professor as one of our seven reads for 2015-2016, I decided to buy this one too.  The story is about seventeen year old Mari who works in her mother’s shabby little hotel by the seaside called Hotel Iris.  The voice of Mari narrates the story in a chilling honesty that is often staggering. She is trapped in the hotel and isn’t allowed to live life very much.  So, it isn’t surprising that she is searching for something more, however the violent humiliating relationship she has with the translator is unexpected and odious.

Her mother is a woman running a business and seems to have little feeling for others.  The story begins when an incident happens in the hotel between a mysterious man and a prostitute.  There are loud noises which are preceded by yelling from the prostitute who leaves the room insulting the man.  Mari’s mother threatens to call the police and demands that the damages to the room and the trouble caused be paid.  From this point on Mari Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 19.40.51becomes enthralled with this mysterious man she calls the translator, and has an ongoing explicit relationship with him.  Here I must caution readers who have difficulty reading about sex (bondage) and most of all sex between a minor and a man in his sixties.  This exceptionally dark novel isn’t only that however it may seem as if it is because it is so short, only 164 pages.  I read it in one sitting.

What I liked most about the novel is the writing.  Ogawa has a very keen sense of description and the book is full of references to smell, taste, and sounds.  The minor characters of the novel accentuate these senses beautifully while telling Mari’s story.  There is a blind English woman, a mute nephew, and a kleptomaniac maid.  However minor these characters they add to the sensation of the senses that Ogawa seems to be trying to paint throughout the ambience of the book.  The translator is a contradiction because he never really explains himself.  As Mari learns about him, so do we.  His job as a translator should make him a character who is clear but he hides a lot of himself throughout  the novel.

I’ve been trying for a few days now to come to a conclusion about what Ogawa was trying to say really in this book and I’m just not sure.  After much thought, I think she wanted to write a book full of different kinds of extreme emotions. This we have examples from the beginning to the end. Some things are described so well they appear vividly in the imagination and in my opinion that’s a gifted writer no matter what the storyline.  Maybe she just wanted to show a look into Mari’s life.  I guess there is a little bit of no one knows what somebody is really living syndrome to the story.  Nevertheless, she is definitely an author to check out, if only to experience the beautiful descriptions and where you will undergo intense emotions.