English – World Literature
Symbolism of ‘Historical Amnesia’; Contemporary History’s Frustration of ‘Reinventing’ the Past; and, a Marriage of the Present and Past to Reconcile and Co-Exist in Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Housekeeper and the Professor
The purpose of this book review is to examine Yoko Ogawa’s use of symbolism in her 2003 novel The Housekeeper and the Professor. I will argue that through specific details about the characters such as their titles/roles in society (and the lack of giving the Housekeeper and the Professor, names) and their ages and time itself, can be used to pin point specific, important time frames in Japanese history. I will illustrate this through three themes I have identified in the novel being: (1) ‘historical amnesia’ illustrated by the Professor and the fact that every 80 minutes his memory erases itself; (2) the frustration of contemporary history by the ‘reinvention’ of the historical past illustrated by the housekeeper; and, (3) a middle ground acquired for both past and present Japan to reconcile and co-exist with one another, through the Housekeeper’s child, ‘Root’. I briefly summarize the difference to western culture.
1. The Professor equals Japanese history and how numbers relate to the ‘Professor’.
I believe Ogawa is possibly softly critiquing Japan culture through her use of the Professor’s memory stopping in 1975 because of an automobile accident causing his “memory to last precisely eighty minutes” (Ogawa, 14). The 1975 and 80 are important for two powerful reasons. The first reason: 1975 represents an important year in Japan’s history as this was the year in which it became part of the G6. While the number 80 is a metaphor (if we subtract 80 from 2003 equals 1943; 80 from 1975 equals 1895) for Japan attempting to erase or forget the last 80 years of its history (at two distinct moments in its history).
The relationship between the number 80 explained above and the Professor losing his memory in 1975 is that the Professor personifies Japanese history. This is shown by the correlation between the Professor’s age, sixty-four (Ogawa, 17) at the time of the story (2003 subtract 64) and his age (47) (Ogawa, 19) at the time of his accident. The significance of the numbers ‘10’ and ‘11’ are discussed in theme three. Mathematics is the sole subject the Professor is able (‘comfortable’) talking about (Ogawa, 33). In mathematics, one follows a system of formulas, and cannot be judged for actions because there are no actions to judge: beautiful and yet simple, answers are wrong or right; neutral.
It is also my position that the automobile accident the Professor had which caused his amnesia (Ogawa, 14) is a metaphor for Japanese culture forcing a ‘reinvention’ of the historical past. As the Professor represents Japanese history, he would also carry its memories: good and bad. He is forced to forget. Avoidance takes a toll on the ‘Professor’s’ body, when Ogawa writes, “He was sixty-four, but he looked older and somewhat haggardhis back was so badly hunched . His voice was feeble and his movements were slow. If you looked closely, though, you could see traces of a face that had once been handsome” (17).
2. The Housekeeper equals contemporary history; the present reconciles with the past
The housekeeper personifies contemporary Japan, which believes Japanese society is attempting to move the country forward, without acknowledging its past. Prior to the current ‘housekeeper’ (present contemporary history), the former housekeeper (early contemporary Japanese history) grew tired of the Professor (Ogawa, 19). The current housekeeper is also sometimes frustrated by his behaviour because he/the past refuses help. ‘She’ shows more patience because she wants change without disrespecting ‘her’ elders shown when she says, “There is nothing more shameful for a housekeeper than to rummage through her employer’s personal property” (Ogawa, 99).
Though as much as the ‘housekeeper’ aids the ‘Professor’, the past does not seem to want the assistance (Ogawa, 121). The ‘housekeeper’ seems to have thought it should be easy for the ‘Professor’ to remember; that the past is unremorseful. Later determining this to be false, understanding the implications of him writing his notes to himself to remember who is now, instead of just who he used to be. She wonders what it means “for him to wake up alone each morning to this cruel revelation,” that a world in which he was once revered no longer exists (Ogawa, 121). However, the widow, representing a Japan disliking any reconciliation because it neither acknowledges past Japan nor its contemporary offspring, says to the housekeeper that ‘Japan past’ has no friends and “squandered” his “property.” An allusion to past foreign policy (Ogawa, 141).
C. ‘Root’ personifies where Japan wants to be / a Rebirth of Japan / Reconciliation
Ten is represented by Ogawa two ways: (1) ‘Root’ is 10 years old when he meets the Professor and 10 is the mathematical root. The Professor is angry when he learns the housekeeper leaves ‘Root’ at home when she comes to take care of him (Ogawa, 35-37). As Japan experienced what economists called, “The Lost Decade,” and 10 is considered a holy number representing totality, universal creation, the foundation of most counting systems, and a return to oneness of the being (“Numbers and their meaning,” n.d.) ‘Root’ represents the foundation upon which the past and present will build the future. At times, the Professor forgets who Root, but one day he finally remembers and keeps remembering. After this, Ogawa mentions the number 11 (Ogawa, 193), which in some cultures represents incompleteness, but in others represents fertility (“Numbers and their meaning,” n.d.). Despite Root growing up by the end of the book, the historical past looks on the present (Root) and views it as “a small boy in need of protection” (Ogawa, 207).
Adult Root becomes a math teacher which through my discussion above could be seen as contemporary history’s failure and the historical past’s success in usurping the present. Not so. The present Japan is choosing simplicity and neutrality. It reconciles the past, but believes simplicity and neutrality is how it must continue into the future, illustrated by Root wearing the number 28 at the novel’s end. Twenty-eight is 14 times two, and 14 “symbolises the sacred number seven” and “the number of goodness and mercy” (“Numbers and their meaning”): the marriage between contemporary and historical Japan. It is also considered the second perfect number. A second chance.
“Numbers and Their Meaning.” Feng-Shui-And-Beyond.com., n.d. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
Ogawa, Yoko. The Housekeeper and the Professor. London: Random House E-Books, 2003.
Web. 9 Nov. 2014.