Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor

Most often you see the film of a book you’ve read. This is, probably, the first time, for me, that it’s been the other way round. I’d seen the 2006 Japanese film The Professor and His Beloved Equation when, by the veriest chance, I chanced upon Yōko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor.

It’s a slim 180 page read. The simple story of a lady employed to work for an absent minded professor. Except that this exceptional professor’s mind is really absent in a certain way. He can't remember anything that is more than a certain number of minutes back.
"It's as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head," the narrator explains, "and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories."
Daughter of a man who constantly exhorted me to remember that one second past is the Divine, I’m charmed to find that it’s the second time in the recent past that I’ve come across a narrative where a person has, effectively, no long term linear memory! The first was the most entertaining Japanese drama The Memorandum of Kyoko Okitegami. It’s sad that I cannot offer you a trailer but just think about it! Just imagine waking up each day with no memory of the previous one - it ought to be like Groundhog Day only it’s far from a boring repetition of the same thing over and over.

Apparently, there is such a medical condition:
Last December the death of a man named Henry Gustav Molaison made headlines in The New York Times and around the world. He was famous in scientific circles for not being able to remember anything new longer than 15 minutes, due to an accident. He had spent the later part of his life in a Connecticut nursing home being a subject known only as H. M. in psychology experiments.
A Troublesome Employer? 
In the Professor’s case, it only took a glance at his client card to know that he might be trouble. A blue star was stamped on the back of the card each time a housekeeper had to be replaced, and there were already nine stars on the Professor’s card, a record during my years with the agency.
It’s soon established that he is quite brainy but it’s the housekeeper who steals the show with her willingness to become an apt student to this odd mathematician.

Soon, her son becomes part of this menagerie. Somehow, this little boy brings out a humanity in the professor that appears to have been lost, along with his memory faculties, in the accident that took place years back.

Of all the countless things my son and I learned from the Professor, the meaning of the square root was among the most important. No doubt he would have been bothered by my use of the word countless - too sloppy, for he believed that the very origins of the universe could be explained in the exact language of numbers - but I don’t know how else to put it. He taught us about enormous prime numbers with more than a hundred thousand places, and the largest number of all, which was used in mathematical proofs and was in the Guinness Book of Records, and about the idea of something beyond infinity. As interesting as all this was, it could never match the experience of simply spending time with the Professor. I remember when he taught us about the spell cast by placing numbers under this square root sign. It was a rainy evening in early April. My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug. The light in the Professor’s study was dim. Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain.
There is nothing intense. Nothing terrible happens. Nor is there any miracle. It’s as if we were allowed a peek into something very extraordinary and we found it serene and healing in a most unusual and unexpected manner. This is, indeed, characteristic of many of the Japanese films and dramas that I watch: perspectives that are in no way flashy or extraordinary save that, somehow, most or many of us fail to see things in that way… This book, then, is one such case where, by the reading of it, you are somehow transported and transformed, most imperceptibly.

In some sense, you can consider it a novel kind of Maths textbook, and that pun is somewhat intended. I confess that I skipped the Maths parts but do not hold that against me. I was not introduced to the subject through this novel but via textbooks filled with questions and upon which tests and exams were constructed.

A slender thread of mystery trips lightly through the tale but is not really resolved - again, a trait that seems dear to the Japanese. And, as a matter of fact, lives are filled with puzzles and few are ever solved completely.

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