Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Like numbers and poetry

I took a break from “The Three Musketeers” – this summer’s adventure yarn on my Kindle – to read something my Karen had just finished. Karen has an unsystematic, and surprisingly successful, way of choosing books from the public library. Sure, she’ll take recommendations and she will pursue authors she has enjoyed. But sometimes, when she’s in a hurry, and it’s summer and just too hot or busy to think about it, she just picks titles off the “Staff Recommendations” rack. She has found some of her favorite modern novels that way.

And occasionally, I have been alert enough to carve out time from my own very systematic reading program(s) to share her pleasure.

The Housekeeper andthe Professor, by Yoko Ogawa, is our most recent shared literary pleasure. It is in English translation from a Japanese author – whom now, I am sure, we will both look for! The narrator is the Housekeeper, the unwed mother of a ten-year-old boy. The Professor suffers from brain damage sustained in a car accident 17 years earlier. A brilliant mathematician, his memory only lasts 80 minutes. (How we has learned to deal with that is just one fascinating feature of the story.) Every day the Housekeeper arrives at his cottage and has to re-introduce herself. She has a son, and when the Professor learns this one day, and that he is a latch-key kid, he is agitated and concerned; he insists that the son come to his cottage every day after school. The only character name in the novel is the nickname the Professor gives the son: “Root” – because his flat-top haircut is like the square root sign. “I’m going to call you Root. The square root sign is a generous symbol, it gives shelter to all the numbers.” (27)

The Professor makes sense of his limitations, and his world, and his relationships, through number. The math in the book is way beyond me, but not in a way that interferes with the story-telling. Indeed, the math is the story-telling. (Now that I think of it, this is like the 18th-century details in the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin novels; they just throw the reader into the world of the novel.) In this novel, the poetry is in the explanation. Prime numbers, perfect numbers, number relationships . . . a world of order and beauty from the pages of “God’s handbook.” The writing, like the math, is sheer poetry.

From the earliest pages, I easily justified reading The Housekeeper as compatible with my MA thesis. Not that evening pleasure reading has to be justified! But here was a nice coincidence. I am currently working through a thesis chapter showing how Baroque composers understood music as a vehicle for conveying meaning. Bach was among the last European composers to retain (to some degree) the ancient notion that music was one way of expressing (and discovering) divine order. From Pythagoras and Plato on into the 17th century, the science of music was related to the order of the universe (musica mundana) and the proper ordering of human life (musica humana); only accidentally, so to speak, was the performance of actual music (musica instrumentalis) important. When the Professor describes ‘amicable numbers’- a completely new concept to me - he says, “They’re linked to each other by some divine scheme, and how incredible that your birthday [220, February 20] and this number on my watch [284] should be such a pair.” (19) That notion of divine order sneaks its way through the novel. Delightful.

Oh, and baseball! Of course, baseball is a game of numbers, statistics, distances, velocity, etc. , and has spawned its own share of engaging writing. The Professor and Root bond through a mutual love of baseball, and the novel takes place over the span of a single season of Japan professional ball. So there you have it, a philosophical, mathematical, poetical baseball novel. The most beautiful thing I’ve read in a long time, and I imagine I’ll pick it up again. How long till next summer?


Theresa Hoffner said...

Next summer will start approximately 427,398 minutes from now. ;)

Chuck King said...

Theresa, maybe I should put a count-down clock at the end of this post :~)