Yoko Ogawa has won the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, the Yomiuri Prize – even for people not well versed in the ins and outs of the Japanese literary establishment, it’s pretty clear that she’s a force to be reckoned with. And yet it wasn’t until this novel was featured on the First Tuesday Book Club that I even knew she existed. And of course, I’ve only just got around to picking up a copy and giving it a go – though that’s largely thanks to the gorgeous cover from Vintage.
The Housekeeper has been given a new assignment – an old professor needs looking after. The only catch is that, since a car accident 25 years ago, he has only 80 minutes of short term memory. But as the two of them begin to fall into some semblance of a routine – along with the Housekeeper’s son, Root – she begins to realise that
There’s a lot to be said for simple novels. And I don’t mean that in a demeaning, sarcastic way. There are three main characters here, locked in their own little world. Other characters barely make an impact – indeed, they barely even speak. But it is a testament to Ogawa’s skills as a writer that this doesn’t get boring. To begin with, the novel doesn’t outstay it’s welcome – it’s less than 200 pages, and very easy to read. But more importantly, these characters are all so nice, you don’t mind just reading about their days over one summer, sitting at home, talking about maths and baseball.
The Professor is the perfect mad professor, locked away in his . Of course, he doesn’t particularly change over the course of events – it is he who provides the catalyst for change in Root. He becomes the father figure Root never had, helping him with his homework, encouraging his interest in baseball, and generally inspiring him to be a better person. I suppose that’s the only way you can use a character like the Professor – since he’s never going to change, he has to be the Macguffin that changes the characters around him. That doesn’t mean he has no personality – the great tragedy of the Professor, of course, is the fact that he seems to be a genuinely nice person, and because life dealt him a shit hand of cards, he’s stuck in 1975, doing maths problems in his study all day, and not seeing the rest of the world.
I’ve heard some people complain that the Housekeeper is too meek, in a rather derisive tone, but I think that’s a pretty unfair accusation to level at her. I don’t want to get into horrible stereotypes of all Japanese women, but I found her to be a pretty engaging, believable character. As a single mother in a culture obsessed with bloodlines and familial bonds, it’s kind of hard to be anything other than meek and polite to everyone you meet. I also don’t think meek is necessarily a bad thing – as a housekeeper, and essentially nurse to this old man, she can’t just barge in there and start changing things. The rules of the Professor’s memory dictate that any big change causes him to be upset, and so she does everything she can to keep his life clam and under control, which I think is actually pretty brave of her. It would be easier just to go down the path of least resistance and do whatever you want – he’s going to forget in less than an hour and a half anyway – but she doesn’t do that. A sign of a deeply compassionate woman, I think.
Yes, there is a fundamental problem with the 80 minute memory conceit – short term memory loss doesn’t really work that way, particularly to the extent of resetting itself exactly every 80 minutes. But that’s not really the point of the novel. Japan has a worryingly ageing population, with very few people to take care of the elderly. Obviously his sister-in-law has no desire to look after him – and, to be fair, I don’t really blame her – but the inevitable question of why he’s not in some kind of home is never really brought up. Perhaps because nursing homes are still a relatively new idea in Japan probably has something to do with it. At the same time, as I said before, being an unmarried teen mother has huge social stigma attached to it – even more so in Japan than here – so having these two characters interact is quite nice to see.
The next paragraph contains pretty massive spoilers, so look away now if you plan on reading this any time soon. A quick search on Wiki shows that amicable numbers can be found using Euler’s rule, which is the rule the Professor writes down in a rather important meeting. Of course, amicable numbers are what bind him and the Housekeeper together, so the fact that he can, even subconsciously, make that link is important, I think. This is never explained in the book – Ogawa leaves it a mystery – though whether this meant she wanted us to go and find out for ourselves is yet another conundrum.
Describing a novel as “nice” tends to make it sound rather like an Agatha Christie novel, but without the murder. But The Housekeeper and the Professor is a nice novel, meant in the, well, nicest sense of the word. A short trip into the lives of three people who meet because of coincidence, it shows us just how important human friendships are in our lives.