The Housekeeper and the Professor is my second go at Yoko Ogawa, having been first introduced to her work through her unforgettable The Diving Pool: Three Novellas. By comparison, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a far cry from the quiet uneasiness and foreboding that helped cement The Diving Pool’s place on my mind’s list of Creepy Reads. It is also a bit more dense, but where there are mathematical formulas and equations involved, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to need a lot of exposition. Thankfully Ogawa’s elegant prose kept me buoyed throughout this gentle story of a beautiful friendship between a brilliant former math professor whose memory lasts only eighty minutes and the empathetic housekeeper hired to take care of him.
Told in the first person, the housekeeper narrates how she came to work for the Professor and how she and her ten-year-old son forge a remarkable and lasting bond with him. Due to a traumatic head injury sustained in a car accident in the mid-70’s, the Professor is unable to remember anything past that year.
“He can remember a theorem he developed thrity years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms, 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. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes – no more, no less.”
None of the housekeepers before her have lasted very long. But the narrator proves herself to be patient, and adapts herself to the Professor’s behavior and routine. She discovers quickly that, while mostly shy and reserved, he comes to life when engaging in discussion about numbers. He explains to her the the significance of the numbers that make up certain things, such as her shoe size and birthdate, teaches her about amicable numbers. When he learns that she has a son, the Professor argues that the boy shouldn’t be alone without his mother and that he should come directly to the cottage after school. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Root’ by the Professor, the ten-year-old and the old man bond quickly over baseball and mathematical puzzles. Despite the Professor’s inability to retain memory for no more than eighty minutes, the friendship that grows between him, his housekeeper, and her son Root proves just as remarkable as the Professor’s love of prime numbers.
I’m hoping to score my own copy of this book in the hopes that I can enjoy it again and again. This is one of the more original friendship stories I’ve read so far. In my eyes, Ogawa has showed that she’s more than capable of writing about things that don’t hint at the darkness lurking within every repressed individual. She can take something as seemingly problematic as mathematics and use it as a way of bringing two unlikely individuals together. Through each other, they’re able create a bond that sustains itself through its constant renewal.
I would like to mention that there’s a movie adaptation of this book entitled, The Professor and his Beloved Equation and it’s available on Youtube. It’s a near-perfect book-to-film adaptation with a few minor tweaks, one of them being that the story is told from the perspective of Root, which pulled just a tad harder at my heartstrings.
But read the book first. I’m just sayin’.