Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

The Subplot as A-Plot: The Function of Baseball in Yoko Ogawa's the Housekeeper and the Professor

Academic journal article Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature

The Subplot as A-Plot: The Function of Baseball in Yoko Ogawa's the Housekeeper and the Professor

Article excerpt

Yoko Ogawa's The Housekeeper and the Professor was first published in Japanese in 2003 to great acclaim, winning the 2004 Yomiuri Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Japan. In 2006 the novel was made into a movie in Japan under a title which, translated to English, reads The Professor's Beloved Equation (Or 71). Virtually unknown in the U.S. until early 2009, when Picador published an English translation of it by Stephen Snyder, the narrative is ostensibly about the relationship that develops between a young housekeeper and her brilliant client, a math professor who has been forced into early retirement because of a debilitating brain injury that leaves him unable to remember anything that happened more than eighty minutes ago. Although the novel is set in 1992, the Professor's short-term memory effectively ended in 1975, the year of his accident, the final year that Yutaka Enatsu, the most dominant pitcher in professional Japanese baseball history, played for the Hanshin Tigers. And while neither the housekeeper nor the Professor is given a name in the novel, it is Enatsu who appears and reappears among the pages, like a ghost out of time, a figure from the Professor's long-term memory who can be summoned up with vivid clarity from a period prior to 1975.

Strangely enough, American and British reviews of Ogawa's novel in translation rarely mention baseball, and when they do they seem unable to discern the centrality of baseball to the narrative. Both The New Yorker and Kirkus, for example, published one-paragraph reviews on February 9, 2009, and neither one mentions baseball. Later that month, on February 26, the Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times published a review of Ogawa's novel which briefly mentions the protagonist's admiration for Yutaka Enatsu, and then adds rather dismissively, "One subplot revolves around the effort to take the professor out to a baseball game" (Overbye BR9). Three months later The Guardian published a review with this solitary reference to the game: "There is a subplot about baseball, which may excite American readers more than British ones" (Poole). In review after review the topic of baseball is either left out of consideration or mentioned only in passing, as if the game plays no considerable role in the narrative.

What these reviewers seem to have in common is tone deafness to the significance of baseball in the novel, for the relationship between the math professor and his housekeeper's ten-year-old son, Root (so named because the top of his head is flat and reminds the Professor of the square root sign), hinges on their joint experiences of rooting for the Hanshin Tigers and attending a crucial game together during the 1992 pennant race. The events of that game trigger a conflation of mathematics and baseball, as the Professor, who avoids crowds in favor of solitary contemplation of numbers, starts to revel in the cheers of the other fans and begins a series of audible computations that intrigue those seated around him. "The height of the mound is 10 inches, or 25.4 centimeters," the Professor announces to no one in particular upon taking his seat. "The infield slopes at a rate of one inch per foot for the first six feet toward the plate" (Ogawa 91). The Professor keeps up a running mathematical commentary throughout the game, such as this monologue when an opposing player steals second base:

It takes 0.8 seconds from the time the pitcher begins his windup to the
time he releases the ball. In this case, the pitch was a curveball that
took 0.6 seconds to reach the catcher's mitt, and then 2 full seconds
for the catcher to throw it to second base, which means the runner had
3.4 seconds total to run the 24 meters from first to second base
without being thrown out, running at more than 7 meters per second, or
25.2 kilometers per hour. (91)

That the Professor is talking at all is highly unusual, as his daily routine involves studying numbers for hours while sitting in silence, filling up the room, as the housekeeper notes, "by a kind of stillness," an utterly mute quietude that she likens to "a clear lake hidden in the depths of the forest" (14). …

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