“…The pages and pages of complex, impenetrable calculations might have contained the secrets of the universe, copied out of God’s notebook. In my imagination, I saw the creator of the universe sitting in some distant corner of the sky, weaving a pattern of delicate lace so fine that that even the faintest light would shine through it. …all we ask is to be able to re-create the pattern, weave it again with numbers, somehow, in our own language; to make the tiniest fragment our own, to bring it back to heart.”
― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

Reflecting on The Housekeeper and The Professor recalls the above paragraph. It is a book that unravels like fine lace that bears intricate patterns of human experience. A gentle story about a maths professor whose memory lasts exactly for eighty minutes before it resets itself, the housekeeper who comes to work and care for him and her ten-year-old son and the friendship that forms between this unlikely group of people, the book examines the nature of memory and celebrates mathematics and friendship.

“I was impressed by the delicate weaving of the numbers. No matter how carefully you unraveled a thread, a single moment of inattention could leave you stranded, with no clue what to do next. In all his years of study, the Professor had managed to glimpse several pieces of the lace. I could only hope that some part of him remembered the exquisite pattern.”
― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

The unusual relationship between the three main characters is realistic and devoid of sentiment and melodrama. For a book that spends many pages describing number theory and mathematical formulae, the prose is tender, subtle and poetic.The Japanese title ‘The Professor’s Beloved Equation‘ suits the novel whose plot structure is balanced with the precision of an elegant mathematical equation.

“Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.”
― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Diving Pool by the same author is a collection of three novellas which take the reader into the murky depths of warped human minds. The characters in these stories are lonely, deranged individuals who give in to their sadistic urges to torture and harm the innocent, for no particular reason except as an outlet for their frustrations. The prose is sharp, the descriptions vivid and keeps the reader turning the pages in spite of the disturbing material. It was hard to believe that the same writer wrote Hotel Iris – a novel about a seventeen-year-old girl living in a seaside town and her relationship with an old man with sadomasochistic tendencies. An extremely dark book, I had to abandon it halfway through. In Revenge, her collection of eleven linked stories, Ogawa returns to the dark recesses of the human mind that she explores in the diving pool. Both the characters and incidents in these stories echo Murakami in the loneliness of the characters, the surreal situations that they face and their actions. Again like Murakami, the beauty of the prose narrated in the first person point of view in each of the eleven stories keeps the reader on the page. The metafictional device of interlinking the stories and the heavy symbolism takes this collection to a different level.

Some of Ogawa’s work raises the question about what makes great literature: is it the style, the language (remembering that these are very good translations from the original by Stephen Snyder), the dexterity with which the novelist builds the plots, the innovativeness that goes into the making of unforgettable characters? Or is it how a book makes the reader feel in the end? I read a number of novels this year that are celebrated as literary classics, but which presented such a depressing view of the world without a clear hope for redemption in the end, that I was not sure if I wanted to rate them five stars for the writing or one star as for the view they presented of the world.

For as a reader of serious literary fiction, I want to read stories that spell out that there is much good in this world, and that there is hope. As it is done in The Housekeeper and The Professor, a favourite book that alone makes its author too, a favourite.

If you like literary fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
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