Sometimes a book comes along that actually convinces me I could perhaps become interested and even good at a subject that has never really interested me before, mainly because I'm shocking at it. In the case of The Housekeeper and The Professor by Japanese author Yoko Ogawa and translated by Stephen Snyder, it's mathematics.
I reckon I could now I've read it...I could actually like numbers not be fearful of them.
I suspect that fear comes from a 1950's approach to primary school maths all conveyed to me by the most terrifying of teachers (who happened to be the headteacher too) who wielded a cane on the boys and just had the girls (me included) cowering with a fear probably sufficient to be called abuse these days. But I think education by fear was how it was done then, so I used to read my way out of trouble, write nice stories and poems that were read out in assembly, dance nicely in Music and Movement lessons and just get on with it. But I lived in constant terror of the torture of maths lessons and never quite got the hang of it ever thereafter.
In fact I think I look a bit petrified in this school photo, it was probably maths next, or I was fed up at being made to hold that doll...
Nor can I do Suduko which isn't even maths, but it's numbers which feels like the same thing and my stomach churns a bit, so I do the crossword instead.
So a book about numbers and one that has sold hugely in Japan.
The enigmatic professor in question has been the victim of a serious car accident which has left him with a residual memory of just eighty minutes. He lives alone and has taken to wearing an old coat covered in reminder notes as he spends his days in his study working on some of the world's most complex mathematical formulae and theories. When the unnamed narrator starts work for him as his housekeeper the implications of the eighty minute memory span start to become apparent.
She must reintroduce herself to the professor each day as if it is the very first, yet with repetition and predictable routine comes a degree of satisfaction as they rub along in the company of each other and something intangible but evident told me I was reading a Japanese book.
'I was not surprised to find balls of hair and moldy Popsicle sticks behind the desk or a chicken bone resting on top of one of his bookshelves. And yet, the room was filled by a kind of stillness. Not simply an absence of noise, but an accumulation of layers of silence, untouched by fallen hair or mold, silence that the Professor left behind as he wandered through the numbers, silence like a clear lake hidden in the depths of the forest.'
As if I know a lot about Japanese books, but I always associate them with a gentle, dream-like tranquillity, I expect an aura of serenity, a sort of indescribable fragility, a feathery stillness, all misplaced and I expect it will probably all be shattered the day I finally conquer Haruki Murukami.
The housekeeper, a very hard-working single mother, starts to create a parallel order out of the visible chaos much as the Professor does with the numbers on the page, and simultaneously her school-age son, wonderfully named Root by the Professor for the resemblance between the shape of his head and a square root sign, soon works a child's magic on the lonely old man and a friendship develops between them all.
A shared love of baseball helps.
Now there's something else I really don't understand, though surely it's only a grown-up version of rounders (with apologies to US readers who've just gone **gasp** at the insult) but it can't be much worse than cricket which I do understand.
But quite oddly, as the housekeeper started to take an interest in the numbers so did I.
There can be advantages to that limited memory span and the Professor proves the perfect teacher who never wearies of repetition or offering the most tangible visual imagery of his seemingly abstract subject. If numbers are to be pulled out of the air and made sense of by those to whom they are a complete mystery, then attaching them to visual references seems like a perfect idea.
If you'd asked me what a prime number or an amicable number was before this novel...well I'm sorry I might not have been able to reel them off, or actually even have had the first clue because I've never had the need to know.
Ah yes well now did you know the sum of the factors of 28 equals 28 making it a perfect number?
I expect you all did, but I didn't 1+2+4+7+14 = 28...magic.
And I bet you all know the next perfect number after 28 which I didn't, and suddenly all those little mysteries were revealed.
Lest you think this is more a maths text book than a novel, fear not. Yoko Ogawa delineates an interesting and original scenario with real beauty and precision mirrored (I assume) in this translation. It had me wondering quite where those mathematical skills sit in the memory, or is maths less about memory and more about logical process, with each successive problem a unique starting over?
Sadly all good things must come to an end but when the final twist did come, and with it a sense of melancholy, there was alongside it a realisation that for the Professor all that mattered were the previous eighty minutes and somehow that made me feel a whole lot better.
An elegiac little book that could so easily have passed me by and I'm so pleased it didn't.
And that next perfect number after 28?
Well I'm sure you don't need this mathematical klutz to tell you that...