Contemporary Japanese literature is all too easy to stereotype. As far as the American reading public goes, the only books that come out of Japan seem to be under one of three genres. The first is the “bizarre things happening in an otherwise normal setting” in the mold of Haruki Murakami. As one of the most successful authors to come out of a non-American or Western-European country in the last thirty years, Murakami is surely a success story that publishers want to recreate. The two other kinds of Japanese fiction published in America seem to be horror novels (Koji Suzuki’s The Ring, et al) and hard-boiled, nihilistic crime novels (think Natsuo Kirino and anything yakuza-related.) Of course, this has led to over-saturation on the bookshelves, and I’ve become completely fatigued by novelists that take an ordinary person with an ordinary life in Tokyo, and then throws in a ghost, or alien, a murder, or any event or characters with motivations completely unexplained to the reader for the protagonist to deal with for instant tension. Why does Japan seem to have a monopoly on novels with extraordinary premises? What happened to all the Japanese realists?
Reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was consequently a breath of fresh air, a beautiful and bittersweet tale by a talented female writer. Ogawa has become a huge critical and popular success in Japan in the last twenty years, winning numerous literary awards including the Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, and the Tanizaki Prize, while also having one of her novels (the one in question) adapted for the screen in 2006. She is also now one of the jurors for the Akutagawa Prize Committee.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is about the relationship between the two eponymous characters (who are never named), and the Housekeeper’s son, only referred to by his nickname Root. The narrator, a single mother employed by the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, has just started her new job working for the Professor, a genius in mathematics who, due to an automobile accident, has a memory that only lasts 80 minutes (and for those who may think this is one of the “unexplained events” that I critiqued above, this condition actually has medical precedent). Every morning, the Housekeeper has to reintroduce herself to the Professor:
“What’s your shoe size?”
This was the Professor’s first question, once I had announced myself as the new housekeeper. No bow, no greeting. If there is one ironclad rule in my profession, it’s that you always give the employer what he wants; and so I told him.
“There’s a sturdy number,” he said. “It’s the factorial of four.” He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and was silent for a moment.
“What’s a ‘factorial’?” I asked at last. I felt I should try to found out a bit more, since it seemed to be connected to his interest in my shoe size.”
“The product of all the natural numbers from one to four is twenty-four,” he said, without opening his eyes. “What’s your telephone number?”
He nodded, as if deeply impressed. “That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.”
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why my phone number was so interesting, but his enthusiasm seemed genuine. And he wasn’t showing off; he struck me as straightforward and modest. It nearly convinced me that there was something special about my phone number, and that I was somehow special for having it.
While the Professor’s memory always fails him, numbers never do. It is the only way he can reach out to the world while everything else constantly disappears. The success of this novel lies in the sense that numbers and their relationship to the world are indeed special, and Ogawa’s straightforward and gentle tone actually make numbers seem magical. The novel also works because of how fully-realized and thoroughly sympathetic the characters are. The deepening relationship between the Housekeeper, Root, and the Professor as they create a make-shift family thanks to the power of numbers, the only thing the Professor can relate to, is powerful and poignant, despite the failure of the Professor’s memory.
The novel is full of explanations about different sorts of math theories, but Ogawa’s prose is so clear and beautiful, thanks in no small part by an excellent translation by Stephen Snyder, that it makes even the most difficult theorems relatable. And because the Housekeeper knows as little about number theory as the average reader, everything is explained gently, and with such passion by the Professor, that even the most difficult theorems become almost magical in their presentation. Every event becomes significant and beautiful in the hands of Ogawa, from getting the Professor to go to a dentist, to the celebration of a ten-year old’s birthday. Even in such a tragic setting, love and happiness blossom in a way that feels both real and sentimental without being saccharine or cloying. Its a novel full of powerful and honest emotions, and a novel that is engaging to the reader even without the aid of metaphysical craziness or grizzly murders. It’s hard to believe that publishing something so ordinary could be called “innovative”, but that’s the state of translated contemporary Japanese fiction right now. It’s going to be hard going back.
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