Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
What initially sounds like a pitch for a TV sitcom is actually a touching literary novel translated from Japanese. In many ways, The Housekeeper and the Professor reminds me of Aimee Bender's An Invisible Sign of My Own in the sense that numbers are a recurring theme, not in an intimidating way but injected seamlessly that it heightens the elegance of the prose. In the latter, mathematics is in the background, a detail which adds to the verisimilitude but it's clear that Bender's focus is on her characters. In that sense, Yoko Ogawa's novel is the reverse. While the story also revolves around the protagonists and their interaction with each other, the math rises to the forefront and is integral to the story. Ogawa sells us the beauty of numbers as adeptly as she enthralls us with her language: for example, we're ensnared by amicable numbers and perfect numbers so much so that this could easily have been a math propaganda book. Even the translator, Stephen Snyder, shares the limelight as I wonder what the original text was like when he translates the palindrome "I prefer Pi."
The Housekeeper and the Professor is smart in the sense that it doesn't attempt to explain everything. All the clues are laid out, the mysteries hinted at, but by the time we reach the conclusion, it's up to the reader to put the pieces together. Of course when it comes to the math--and in many ways this is superior to a science fiction novel in the sense that the reader falls in love with this science without much effort--Ogawa (and her translator Snyder) explains everything clearly to the point that extensive knowledge of the subject matter might be detrimental, in the same way that a magic trick loses its charm if the viewer is aware of the magician's sleight of hand.
But one shouldn't think this is simply a concept book, or a science fiction romance in disguise. What I've been downplaying is Ogawa's skill in characterization and this is evident as the initial paragraphs take place in medias res and revolve around what will be the central cast of the narrative. Ogawa hooks you from the start and each character is fleshed out, rising beyond their assumed roles and carrying complex burdens. There's a lot of restraint with Ogawa's writing and this novel is probably better for it.
The cultural specificity also isn't lost in the translation. The professor from the title for example points to his chest--the heart--when Westerners would have pointed to the head. This detail remained intact and will no doubt baffle some readers but it's a decision by the translator to remain faithful to the original source.
Overall, this was a compelling read and in many ways combines elements of science fiction (as opposed to being a science fiction novel in disguise) with literary fiction, and produces a piece of literature that's unique and refreshing. Ogawa adeptly avoids the common pitfalls of writers and introduces something that elevates the text.