Last summer I read Ogawa's “The Diving Pool,” three spare, eerie novellas where fat baby thighs, American grapefruits, and color-changing tulips takeLast summer I read Ogawa's “The Diving Pool,” three spare, eerie novellas where fat baby thighs, American grapefruits, and color-changing tulips take on strange significances. “Housekeeper,” to my surprise, wasn't surreal at all, but a sweet (and I mean "sweet" before the Age of Irony, when sentiment was not automatically cause for contempt) tale of memory, math, baseball, and improvised family. The Professor of the title was a brilliant mathematician specializing in number theory until a car accident, 17 years before the book begins, left him with a short-term memory of only eighty minutes. He compensates in a small way with an elaborate system of notes pinned to his one suit, recording names, dates, formulas—and the most important one, of course, that reads “My memory lasts only eighty minutes.” After she meets him for the first time (he always meets her for the first time), the housekeeper narrator spies a new note, a crude sketch of her with “the new housekeeper” written underneath, and thenceforth she can introduce herself by pointing. Every time the Professor meets her anew, he asks for a number that belongs to her—her shoe size, for example, or her phone number. It’s more than just a nervous tic: to the Professor, numbers contain and encode a beautiful, objective reality. Whatever integer she gives he becomes significant. Her shoe size, 24, is the sturdy factorial of 4 (1x2x3x4=24); her phone number, 576-1455, the number of primes between one and one hundred million. After he finds out her son is a latchkey child, the Professor insists the housekeeper bring him along, and dubs the boy “Root” for his radical-sign-flat-topped head. Root and the Professor bond over their home team, the Hanshin Tigers, and the three create a contented household of sorts, with that most primary of numbers, the Professor’s eighty minutes, always hanging over them. What makes “Housekeeper” astonishing is Ogawa’s ability to locate warmth, affection, and tenderness in numbers, which are more important to the story than names—the two title characters’ names are never mentioned, and Root is only referred to by his mathematical nickname. The complex relationships between people not joined by blood are mirrored in rare numerical phenomena like “amicable numbers” whose factors add up to each other (the factors of 220 add up to 284; 284’s factors equal 220) and “twin primes” that differ from each other by two (there are six pairs under 100, and then a gap until 821 and 823). According to the Professor, “The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world. Life isn’t going to be easier, nor is anyone going to make a fortune, just because they know something about prime numbers. . . . But those things aren’t the goal of mathematics. The only goal is to discover the truth.” Ogawa, I think, feels the same way about human love....more
So small and quiet and lovely. I want to compare it to an Ozu film, but that's utterly pretentious since I've only seen Tokyo Story 15 years ago in coSo small and quiet and lovely. I want to compare it to an Ozu film, but that's utterly pretentious since I've only seen Tokyo Story 15 years ago in college. But it did remind me of that.