Adding up the equations in our lives

• Article by: ANTHONY BUKOSKI , Special to the Star Tribune
• Updated: February 6, 2009 - 4:24 PM

This Japanese novella uses numbers to give meaning to the ways in which we relate to one another.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Photo: Star Tribune

Translated from Japanese, this lovely novella describes the growing friendship between an employee of the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, her 11-year-old son, a Hanshin Tigers baseball fan, and a professor who solves mathematics problems, then submits his solutions to math journals.

Injured in an automobile accident years before, the professor has 80 minutes of short-term memory, after which he must be reminded where he lives, even who his new friends are. To aid remembering, he clips notes to the worn suits he wears daily, though he rarely leaves his cottage, where, like the professor himself, "just about everything ... was either broken or on its last legs."

One note reads "the function of the elliptical curve"; one, "Hilbert's thirteenth" (a math problem). One note bears a sketch of the housekeeper; another of her son, whom the professor calls Root, "because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign."

Despite the professor's impairment, two constants remain with him from before the accident: the beauty of numbers and the memory of his sister-in-law who, living next door, cannot be bothered to look after him. Part of the reason she refuses to do so appears in an equation the professor writes when the sister-in-law threatens to fire the housekeeper. Together with other numbers -- the housekeeper's birthday, Root's weight at birth, the Hanshin players' uniform numbers and statistics -- the equation provides a glimpse into what the professor calls "God's notebook."

A cosmic mystery of love, hope and remembrance, this notebook is like a pattern woven by "the creator of the universe," the housekeeper comes to realize. "And all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make even the tiniest fragment our own ... "

The mother and son's "fragment" occurs during that summer. One day, for example, the professor hesitantly leaves the cottage to accompany them on an outing. As their bond deepens, so, too, does the appreciation Root and his mother have, both for the professor's kindness and for his understanding of eternity, which "meant something more than it did to the rest of us, eternal in the way a math theorem was eternal."

Ogawa's plot twists, her narrative pacing, her use of numbers to give meaning and mystery to life are as elegant in their way as the math principles the professor cites. "Math is like God's lace," the housekeeper learns.

Ogawa's short novel is itself an equation concerning the intricate and intimate way we connect with others -- and the lace of memory they sometimes leave us.

Anthony Bukoski's most recent short-story collection is "North of the Port." He lives and teaches in Superior, Wis.

• THE HOUSE-KEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR

By: Yoko Ogawa, translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Review: An aging professor finds the tape of his memory is erased every 80 minutes. But in elegant words and surprising plot twists, Ogawa shows how connections run deeper than words.

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