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Finding hope in the meaning of numbers

by Stephen Mansfield

The beauty of figures plucked from an infinite numerical pool forms part of the theme of Yoko Ogawa’s novel, which is also a celebration of an improbable friendship.

THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR by Yoko Ogawa. Picador, 2009, 180 pp., $14 (paper)

The narrator is a housekeeper sent to work for a former mathematics professor suffering partial brain damage from the aftereffects of a car crash. The professor is in the care of his sister-in-law, with whom he once had an intimate but unspecified relationship that only she is able to recall.

His memory has not been wiped out, but is limited to a fixed span. Likened to an 80-minute videotape, his retention is as concise in its limitations as his mental calculations and calibrations of numbers are limitless.

Like her own parent, the housekeeper is a single mother who has come to accept a life of hard grind and social detachment. Scrimping and scraping, working her fingers to the bone for a housekeeping agency run by a hard-nosed director, the housekeeper’s manageable plight hints at the terrible conditions of single, working women in Japan.

A bond forms between the professor and housekeeper when he shows kindness to her son. The beneficial power that children can exert on the elderly and infirm is apparent when the 10-year old appears and is instantly dubbed “Root” after the square root sign. The relationship, however, exists strictly within the 80-minute splices of time.

When the housekeeper turns up for work the following morning, the professor has no idea who she is until he refers to the notes scribbled on pieces of paper and pinned to his jacket.

Though his mental life has been cruelly disabled, the professor’s enthusiasm for his subject has not dimmed. Equations are used as metaphors for the novel’s recurring themes. In the process the reader learns, if they don’t already know, about the meaning of number theory, divisors, amicable figures, the mysteries of the Diophantine equation.

Under the influence of the professor’s ideas, math is taken out of the arid textbook context and placed in an intuitive, natural world. When the housekeeper’s son is caught in a thunderstorm while running an errand, she grasps the professor’s sleeve as a lightening bolt strikes overhead: “Don’t worry,” the professor reassures her, “The square root sign is a sturdy one. It shelters all the numbers.”

Ultimately, everything is reducible to numbers, to the perceptibility of patterns. Holding forth on baseball, the professor declares, “no other sport is captured so perfectly by its statistics, its numbers.”

The professor’s reverence for mathematics is expressed in the belief that it is linked to the existence of the universe: “Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.” Some of this notion of a truly higher mathematics rubs off on the housekeeper. Her curiosity, spurred by her discovery of the beauty of numbers, their immutable laws and truths, leads to inquiry, the unraveling of the professor’s past.

Solving equations becomes an obsession, but a wholesome and fruitful one, leading to revelations that can only be called spiritual. “In the midst of a vast field of numbers,” she ruminates, “a straight path opened before my eyes. A light was shining at the end, leading me on, and I knew then that it was the path to enlightenment.”

The housekeeper finds that eternal truths, concealed from eyes and emotions, can be illuminated by mathematics, that the invisible world of order is “somehow propping up the visible one, that this one, true line extended infinitely, without width or area, confidently piercing through shadows. Somehow, this line would help me find peace.”

As the professor illustrates in his appreciation of the most ordinary instances of numbers — a birthday, baseball score, shoe size — nothing in numerology is coincidental or without significance.