The Truly Correct Proof

The nature of friendship and love for that matter is at times elusive. One day we are friends and the next enemies or all but forgotten. This was certainly true of the former mathematics professor in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor. The Professor in this novel, like all the other characters, is never given a name. Nor can he remember anything new for more than 80 minutes.

The Professor lost the ability to recall anything beyond that period following an automobile accident in 1975. A housekeeper cooks and cleans for him in the rundown cottage where he lives. Each time the housekeeper arrives she has to explain who she is as the Professor has completely forgotten about her overnight. And each time she does this, the Professor asks her what her shoe size is or the date of her birth or something strange like that, whereupon he always finds something rather remarkable about the number she comes up with.

In time, the Professor learns that the housekeeper’s ten-year old son waits for her mother at school until the workday is over. When he learns this, he insists that the boy come with her to work. He names the boy Root because of his flat head and informs him that the mathematical sign for square root looks like the top of his head.

The friendship that develops between the boy and the Professor is a tender, deeply felt one but is never fully explained. Perhaps the Professor had a son or lost one or always wanted one. We are never told. Regardless, the Professor routinely asks Root questions when he arrives and that are, in turn followed by others from the boy. The Professor

“…seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”

And if the Professor or the young boy didn’t know the answer, it was important to admit it.

“For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn’t have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven.”

The Housekeeper and the Professor has a strange, serene quality about it. Nothing much happens other than a good deal of discussion of mathematics, including the mathematics of baseball.

Like the Professor, Charlie Mallory in John Cheever’s short story, The Geometry of Love, also looked to mathematics to understand his world.

“He might not, had he possessed any philosophy or religion, have needed geometry, but the religious observances in his neighborhood seemed to him boring and threadbare, and he had no disposition for philosophy. Geometry served him beautifully for the metaphysics of pain.”

“The afternoon’s geometry had proved to him that his happiness….suffered from some capricious, unfathomable, and submarine course of emotion…that had no regularity and no discernable cause.”

“Oh, Euclid, be with me now.”

The Professor and the Housekeeper
has been extremely popular in Japan, selling more than 2.5 million copies. Even a book Oprah recommends would never find that many readers in this country. The story is also similar to several actual cases reported by memory researchers in which an individual is not able to remember anything new after a fixed period of time.

The tale also conveys much of the serenity and simplicity that we have come to associate with traditional Asian culture. I was drawn to this feature of the novel and the reason I found it so appealing. Ogawa beautifully conveys the peace that the Professor finds in math and then to Root and his mother as they eventually discover the truth of a math puzzle the Professor has set before them.

“The truly correct proof is one that strikes a harmonious balance between strength and flexibility. There are plenty of proofs that are technically correct but are messy and inelegant or counterintuitive. But it’s not something you can put into words—explaining why a formula is beautiful is like trying to explain why the stars are beautiful.”