Tuesday, 29 November 2011

the housekeeper and the professor [yoko ogawa]

When Christopher Nolan’s film Memento appeared, it contained a device which seemed breathtaking in its simplicity and full of an unquantifiable dramatic potential. The device is that of a man whose memory is reduced to a very brief span of just a few minutes. He writes notes which he uses to remind himself of the things he will need to try and remember when he “wakes up” again with his memories once again eradicated. The one problem with Nolan’s idea (developed with his brother) is that it is so dazzlingly original that it cannot really be repeated, as everyone will just say – they already did that in Memento.

Which leads to the question of how successful that film was in Japan and whether Ogawa likes the cinema. Because her novel, published long after Memento was released, employs exactly the same device. Given that this is a novel and its timespan has greater scope that that of a movie, the maths Professor who suffers from the disease has an 80 minute memory span, allowing him to develop quite a profound relationship with his housekeeper, the narrator, and her son, who is known as Root, because his haircut reminds the Professor of the sign for Square Root.

In contrast to the Nolan, Ogawa uses the device to develop a gentle, sad but affecting tale of the way in which the human instinct towards kindness and affection can succeed in transcending even the annihalatory process of time. In spite of his illness, the Housekeeper succeeds in developing a rich relationship with the Professor, which changes both her and her son’s life. The idiot savants of this world know far more than us ordinary mortals will ever be able to forget. Underpinning this is the Professor’s belief that mathematics, the art of which he studies, precedes and will postdate humanity. The mathematical laws offer a transcendent vision to those who learn to study them. The Professor communicates through maths and as the Housekeeper gets to grips with the science, along with Root, their relationship flourishes.

So, now it can be said, if anyone were to use this narrative device again: you can’t use it because Nolan and Ogawa have already used it. It is perhaps worth noting the way in which two separate cultures have chosen to use the same trick. Ogawa’s version is less viscerally dramatic, perhaps, but in her hands it shows the way in which the ability of humans to connect can transcend even the most extreme of obstacles. Whereas Nolan’s use of the device was rather more nihilistic.

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