The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yōko Ogawa
“Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.” ― Yōko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and the Professor
This short novel is narrated by the housekeeper of the title, a single mother employed by an agency, who is assigned a new client. He lives in a dingy two-room apartment, and his suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself. This is the Professor, a brilliant mathematician who suffered brain damage in a car accident in 1975, and since then cannot remember anything for more than an hour and 20 minutes at a time. "It's as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head," the narrator explains, "and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories."
What the professor can remember is mathematics. It is this mathematics that is presented in an almost poetic form, but also as a dialogue between the professor and his housekeeper, and with her son as well. The characters remain nameless, except the son who is nicknamed Root by the professor, yielding an allegorical feeling and you read the story. Yet it is also an intimate tale of a family that goes beyond that through an exploration of the experience of memory and the beauty of mathematics.
How do you form a relationship with a person who cannot remember you from day to day? The attempts to overcome the difficulties posed by this situation sometimes seem insurmountable for the dedicated housekeeper. Both she and her son grow and change during the story while the professor seems stuck in a stagnant loop due to his faulty memory. In spite of this he is able to relate well to Root in his own unique way:
“He treated Root exactly as he treated prime numbers. For him, primes were the base on which all other natural numbers relied; and children were the foundation of everything worthwhile in the adult world”
Eventually it is the housekeeper's dedication that leads to an unforeseen change in her relationship with the professor and provides a moment of suspense in an otherwise very straightforward story. The juxtaposition of mathematics with the personal relationships and situations created by the Professor's memory loss provide a unique metaphorical approach to what would otherwise be a mundane narrative.
This is a surprisingly poignant and emotionally uplifting narrative whose straightforward and lucid presentation masks a much more complex and meaningful tale. The book as a whole is an exercise in delicate understatement, of the careful arrangement into a surprisingly strong structure. The pure mountain air of number theory wafts gently through all its pages leading to pure enjoyment for this reader.
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