Baseball and math are old friends. But no one I’ve read has ever demonstrated their congruency as gracefully as Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa does in this slender novel.
The unnamed narrator is sent to work at the cottage of the Professor, who has worn out nine previous housekeepers. He’s not senile, explains his sister-in-law. But due to a car accident 17 years ago, his memory is limited: “It’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.”
The Professor copes with his condition through handwritten notes attached to his suit. The biggest note reminds him of his memory loss and 80-minute limit. Soon he has added one with a sketch of his new housekeeper’s face.
Damaged and shy, the Professor is still brilliant, spending his time on complex mathematical puzzles for journals. We’re in Oliver Sacks territory here, of mental gifts offsetting mental deficits. The down-to-earth housekeeper is drawn slowly into his orbit of factorials, perfect numbers, Euler and Fermat.
She, in turn, gently tethers him to humanity. She’s a single mother; when the Professor learns she has a 10-year-old son, he insists the son come to his house after school. Seeing the son’s flat head, the Professor nicknames him Root, for square root.
A friendship blossoms. The Professor is an enthusiastic teacher, praising even wrong answers for the effort of discovery. The fatherless boy doesn’t love school, but basks in the old man’s warm attention.
They also bond over baseball. Root is nuts about it. The Professor, too, is a fan. He has never seen a game, but he has a tin of prized baseball cards, including his favorite player, left-handed Hanshin Tigers pitcher Yutaka Enatsu, whose perfect number 28 is so pleasing.
The housekeeper treats them to a game by the visiting Tigers, though she and Root sweat about how to explain the absence of the long-retired Enatsu. The game is magical, and the Professor finds math everywhere in the experience: His excited discourse on the Ruth-Aaron pair of 714-715 is not to be missed.
Misunderstanding of their affection forces them apart, until the Professor demands their reunion in a most mathematical way. After she returns to work for him, the housekeeper glimpses some of the secrets hidden by his memory loss.
Ogawa’s prose, as translated by Stephen Snyder, flows so smoothly her book can easily be read in an afternoon on the couch, especially if a Brewers game is playing softly on the radio. The sometimes complex math that surfaces in the story is fully explained in context.
“I think I’m a little smarter when I’m in the Professor’s office,” says Root. Anyone who reads this magical book will likely be both a little smarter and a little kinder afterward.
A footnote: In 1985, at age 36, after his illustrious Japanese baseball career ended, Enatsu signed a minor-league deal with the Brewers and tried unsuccessfully to make the big-league club in spring training.