Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder
I just finished reading this elegant translation of "Hakase no Aishita Sushiki" (author copyright 2003) which brings to the English speaking world a wonderful novel incorporating some weighty social issues into a thought-provoking story with an economy of prose and a light touch.
It is a quintessentially Japanese story, yet like all good novels, its problems are universal--social disenfranchisement, aging, failure of education system--to name a few. If you have some knowledge of modern Japan, the story may feel more poignant, but even if you know nothing about Japan, the characters' dilemmas will ring true. If your tastes include math, baseball, and Japan, this novel may likely become one of your favorites. Personally, my eyes glaze over at the appearance of numerals and equations; I sleep through baseball; but the "Japan" part hooked me. The humanity of the story hooked me.
Perhaps more than other societies, it's tough to be a misfit in Japan. (As a foreigner living in Japan, I can relate). The characters in this work are all misfits, quietly and somewhat tragically unable to live up to society's expectations. The housekeeper, fatherless and then orphaned, is a single mother to her own young son. Though few details are sketched, there are hints that the son is not well liked at school. Intelligent but under-educated, the mother takes jobs cleaning houses and is hired by an old woman to clean her brother-in-law's (the professor's) house. The woman sets forth strict rules for the job, based on the odd facts that define the professor's reclusive life and unusual behavior. He is a world-renowned math genius whose long-term memory stops in 1975. His memory for current events and new information lasts only 80 minutes.
Almost without realizing it, these humble souls discover a uniquely human connectedness. The plot involves a gentle, almost sublime, teaching of math and the magical guile of a truly great teacher in the person of the professor, plus an adoring rendition of the sport of baseball. So important are math and baseball that they nearly become characters in themselves. There is enough suspense, intrigue, and a few surprises to make this a satisfying glimpse of life in modern Japan.
"Hakase no Aishita Sushiki" was made into a movie directed by Takashi Koizumi (assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on several films) in 2006, and reportedly played well to Japanese audiences. Now, thanks to Stephen Snyder's translation, the novel The Housekeeper and the Professor will be released in the United States in February 2009.