I told my Algebra 2 teacher in high school that I hated math. He should have handed me this novel by award-winning author Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder), not that it was even a spark in the eye back then. I still don’t care much for mathematics, but if you can put it in a story, a really good story, I’ll go along with it, and even, almost see the beauty. I always enjoyed the story problems a lot more than I did the ones that were just straight numbers.
The Professor is a brilliant math professor, retired as a result of an accident in which he sustained a head injury. Now he’s a solver of math puzzles living on the bounty of his widowed sister-in-law because The Professor can only remember the last eighty minutes of his life, and everything that happened before 1975 when the accident took place.
The Housekeeper is the fifth in a succession of housekeepers hired to care for the professor —and to be re-introduced to him each morning and several times a day since the professor has no long term memory. The Housekeeper is able to give the professor acceptance and the gift of no expectations. The Professor is able to give the Housekeeper and her son, Root, the gift of friendship and of mathematics. Numbers are the Professor’s friends; and he has the ability to make those numbers and their properties tell stories, provoke thought, and give life to those around him, especially to The Housekeeper and to Root.
The novel includes a bit of mystery: what is the Professor’s relationship with his sister-in-law? Why does she tell The Housekeeper not to consult her about anything concerning the Professor? I’ll even warn you that the mystery is never fully resolved. However, the central relationships are those between The Professor, The Housekeeper, and Root. The book is a lovely exploration of friendship without conditions attached and passion for the depth of God’s creation in the form of mathematics.
And I explored imaginary numbers, triangular numbers, square roots, primes, and factorials, and amicable numbers, painlessly and delightfully explained and illustrated in the life and stories of The Professor. Do you know about the relationship between the numbers 220 and 284? I do now, and it’s rather incredible.
Read the book.