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Housekeeper and the Professor (Ogawa)

The Housekeeper and the Professor
Yoko Ogawa, 2003 (Eng. trans., 2009)
Macmillan Picador
192 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780312427801


Summary  
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 from the past. And the numbers, in all of 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.

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. (From the publisher.)



About the Author 
Birth—March 30, 1962
Where—Ikayama, Okayama Prefecture, Japan
Education—Waseda University
Awards—Kaien Prize; Akutagawa Prize; Yomiuri Prize;
  Isumi Prize; Tanizaki Prize
Currently—lives in Ashiya, Hyogo


Ogawa was born in Okayama, Okayama Prefecture, graduated from Waseda University, and lives in Ashiya, Hyōgo, with her husband and son. Since 1988, she has published more than twenty works of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Professor's Beloved Equation (aka The Housekeeper and the Professor) has been made into a movie. In 2006 she co-authored An Introduction to the World's Most Elegant Mathematics with Masahiko Fujiwara, a mathematician, as a dialogue on the extraordinary beauty of numbers.

Kenzaburo Oe has said, "Yoko Ogawa is able to give expression to the most subtle workings of human psychology in prose that is gentle yet penetrating." The subtlety in part lies in the fact that Ogawa's characters often seem not to know why they are doing what they are doing. She works by accumulation of detail, a technique that is perhaps more successful in her shorter works; the slow pace of development in the longer works requires something of a deus ex machina to end them. The reader is presented with an acute description of what the protagonists, mostly but not always female, observe and feel and their somewhat alienated self-observations, some of which is a reflection of Japanese society and especially women's roles within in it. The tone of her works varies, across the works and sometimes within the longer works, from the surreal, through the grotesque and the —sometimes grotesquely— humorous, to the psychologically ambiguous and even disturbing. (Hotel Iris, one of her longer works, is more explicit sexually than her other works and is also her most widely translated.) (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
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. Dive into Yoko Ogawa's world (she is the author of more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction) and you find yourself tugged by forces more felt than seen.
Dennis Overbye - New York Times


We don't pay much attention to literary news from Japan unless it’s bizarre: businessmen on crowded subways reading pornographic manga, teenage girls buying cell-phone romance novels by the millions. But here’s an example of Japanese reading habits that’s just as odd, if less sexy: Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor has sold more than 2.5 million copies in the small island nation. Oprah would have to recommend a book about Harry Potter’s dying Labrador to move that many copies in the United States.... The Housekeeper and the Professor is strangely charming, flecked with enough wit and mystery to keep us engaged throughout. This is Ogawa’s first novel to be translated into English, and Stephen Snyder has done an exceptionally elegant job.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


This sweetly melancholy novel adheres to the Japanese aesthetic that finds beauty in what is off-center, imperfect.... In treating one another with such warm concern and respect, the characters implicitly tell us something about the unforgiving society on the other side of the Professor's cottage door.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is a wisp of a book, but an affecting one.
Amanda Heller - Boston Globe


Gorgeous, cinematic...The Housekeeper and the Professor is a perfectly sustained novel...like a note prolonged, a fermata, a pause enabling us to peer intently into the lives of its characters.... This novel has all the charm and restraint of any by Ishiguro or Kenzaburo Oe and the whimsy of Murakami. The three lives connect like the vertices of a triangle.
Susan Salter Reynolds - Los Angeles Times


Lovely.... Ogawa's plot twists, her narrative pacing, her use of numbers to give meaning and mystery to life are as elegant in their way as the math principles the professor cites.... Ogawa's short novel is itself an equation concerning the intricate and intimate way we connect with others—and the lace of memory they sometimes leave us.
Anthony Bukoski - Minneapolis Star Tribune


(Starred review.) Ogawa (The Diving Pool) weaves a poignant tale of beauty, heart and sorrow in her exquisite new novel. Narrated by the Housekeeper, the characters are known only as the Professor and Root, the Housekeepers 10-year-old son, nicknamed by the Professor because the shape of his hair and head remind the Professor of the square root symbol. A brilliant mathematician, the Professor was seriously injured in a car accident and his short-term memory only lasts for 80 minutes. He can remember his theorems and favorite baseball players, but the Housekeeper must reintroduce herself every morning, sometimes several times a day. The Professor, who adores Root, is able to connect with the child through baseball, and the Housekeeper learns how to work with him through the memory lapses until they can come together on common ground, at least for 80 minutes. In this gorgeous tale, Ogawa lifts the window shade to allow readers to observe the characters for a short while, then closes the shade. Snyder—who also translated Pool—brings a delicate and precise hand to the translation.
Publishers Weekly


First published in Japanese in 2003, this gem won the prestigious 2004 Yomiuri Prize and in 2006 was adapted for film (The Professor's Beloved Equation). The story evolves around a young housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who have an esoteric link to a retired university professor through "amicable numbers." Ogawa (The Diving Pool) deliberately avoids any hint of romance between the two adult protagonists. Instead, she delves into the educational process between the housekeeper, a high school dropout, and the professor, a mathematical genius. With a prose style justly acclaimed as gentle yet penetrating, Ogawa gives mathematical theories from Eratosthenes to Einstein a titanic wink; under her pen, they no longer are solely a topic of conversation among academics but a tool that facilitates conflict resolution, communication between commoner and intellectual, and appreciation for the nobility and individuality of everyday objects; they also help us establish our worth in a chaotic world. This novel evokes the joy of learning, and, with its somewhat eccentric yet lovable protagonists, is a pleasure to read. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. —Victor Or, Surrey P.L. North Vancouver Lib., BC
Library Journal



Discussion Questions 
1. The characters in The Housekeeper and the Professor are nameless (“Root” is only a nickname). What does it mean when an author chooses not to name the people in her book? How does that change your relationship to them as a reader? Are names that important?

2. Imagine you are writer, developing a character with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. How would you manage the very specific terms of that character (e.g. his job, his friendships, how he takes care of himself)? Discuss some of the creative ways in which Yoko Ogawa imagines her memory-impaired Professor, from the notes pinned to his suit to the sadness he feels every morning.

3. As Root and the Housekeeper grow and move forward in their lives, the Professor stays in one place (in fact he is deteriorating, moving backwards). And yet, the bond among the three of them grows strong. How is it possible for this seemingly one-sided relationship to thrive? What does Ogawa seem to be saying about memory and the very foundations of our profoundest relationships?

4. The Professor tells the 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.” Does this paradox apply to anything else, beside math? Perhaps memory? Love?

5. The Houskeeper’s father abandoned her mother before she was born; and then the Housekeeper herself suffered the same fate when pregnant with Root. In a book where all of the families are broken (including the Professor’s), what do you think Ogawa is saying about how families are composed? Do we all, in fact, have a fundamental desire to be a part of a family? Does it matter whom it’s made of?

6. Did your opinion of the Professor change when you realized the nature of his relationship with his sister-in-law? Did you detect any romantic tension between the Professor and the Housekeeper, or was their relationship chaste? Perhaps Ogawa was intending ambiguity in that regard?

7. The sum of all numbers between one and ten is not difficult to figure out, but the Professor insists that Root find the answer in a particular way. Ultimately Root and the
Housekeeper come to the answer together. Is there a thematic importance to their method of solving the problem? Generally, how does Ogawa use math to illustrate a whole
worldview?

8. Baseball is a game full of statistics, and therefore numbers. Discuss the very different ways in which Root and the Professor love the game.

9. How does Ogawa depict the culture of contemporary Japan in The Housekeeper and the Professor? In what ways does is it seem different from western culture? For example, consider the Housekeeper’s pregnancy and her attitude toward single motherhood; or perhaps look at the simple details of the story, like Root’s birthday cake. In what ways are the cultures similar, different?

10. Ogawa chooses to write about actual math problems, rather than to write about math in the abstract. In a sense, she invites the reader to learn math along with the characters.
Why do you think she wrote the book this way? Perhaps to heighten your sympathy for the characters?

11. Do numbers bear any significance on the structure of this book? Consider the fact that the book has eleven chapters. Are all things quantifiable, and all numbers fraught with poetic
possibility?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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