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Nurture by Numbers

By Margaret Black

The Housekeeper and the Professor

By Yoko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Sydner

Picador, 180 pages, $14

The Housekeeper and the Professor is Yoko Ogawa’s beautifully clear, marvelously translated, and deceptively moving story about a young single mother, called the Housekeeper, who takes a daily housekeeping job for an elderly former professor of mathematics, called the Professor. Seventeen years earlier, the Professor had suffered a tragic accident that damaged his short-term memory and, while he retains everything prior to 1975, he can remember no more than 80 minutes of the present.

The Professor reminds himself of present-day matters by pinning notes to his suit, including the all-important one telling him that his short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes. But, although he adds a note about the Housekeeper, each time she appears, she is new to him. When the Professor discovers that the Housekeeper’s 10-year-old son goes home to an empty house after school, he insists that the boy come to her at work instead. The Professor names the boy Root (because the flat top of his head reminds the Professor of the square root sign) and acts very fond and protective of him, even though he must renew his acquaintance daily. For their part, Root and his mother become just as fond and protective of the Professor. The Professor spends most of his time solving math puzzle contests in professional journals, but he also enjoys overseeing Root’s homework.

Whenever the Professor meets people or must deal with something upsetting, he uses mathematical facts to ease his confusion. The first day the Housekeeper arrives on the job, the Professor, without a greeting or a bow, immediately asks, “What’s your shoe size?” As it’s an “ironclad” rule of her job to give the employer what he wants, the Housekeeper tells him “twenty-four centimeters.”

“That’s a sturdy number,” he says. “It’s a factorial of four.”

When she breaks the silence that follows by asking what a factorial is, he gives her a succinct definition and immediately asks what her telephone number is. To her answer, he nods, “as if deeply impressed. ‘That’s the total number of primes between one and one hundred million.’”

What makes the Housekeeper different from the many other housekeepers who have passed through the Professor’s cottage is apparent from that first exchange. Although she has little education, her mind and sympathies are awake. Initially, mathematics is the only subject that engages the Professor, so she becomes interested in his observations and tries to solve the problems he sometimes sets her. When Root becomes part of their daily encounter, he and his mother learn that the Professor was a great baseball fan and knows masses of statistics, all of them 20 years out of date.

Insofar as the novel includes a plot, it centers around Root and his mother learning to navigate the Professor’s memory problems and trying to take the Professor to a baseball game. The Housekeeper must also deal with the strange conditions of her employment. The Professor lives in a tiny ramshackle cottage at the very back of his widowed sister-in-law’s untended, overgrown back yard. The widow, a handsome woman living in considerable comfort in the big front house, hires and pays for the Housekeeper, but requires that the Housekeeper never contact her for any matter whatsoever regarding the Professor. Her distant, unpleasant behavior comes to have plot implications.

But our real engagement with this work grows out of watching the relationship that comes to exist despite the Professor’s debilitating memory problems. Obviously, the Housekeeper’s openness to and later fascination with numbers builds a connection easily reestablished from day to day, but the Professor’s fondness for Root, based as it appears to be on his deep humanistic feeling about children, is reestablished with equal ease. The affection of Root and his mother for the old man make them alert to his difficulties and conspirators in working around them. Spontaneous delight leads the Housekeeper to share her simple discovery that the sum of the divisors of 28 is 28, which the Professor happily identifies as that rare thing, a perfect number. Learning of abundant and deficient numbers expands the world of her imagination as well as her knowledge. But it’s sheer affectionate deviousness that has her grating the carrots that the Professor hates into other foods he enjoys. Initially, Root doesn’t even know the name of Enatsu, the Professor’s favorite pitcher, yet he manages to produce plausible excuses time and again for Enatsu’s not playing in that day’s game.

This lovely, lucid novella took Japan by storm back in 2003 when it first came out. Ogawa is a great favorite there, having produced more than 20 novels and won multiple prizes. In the United States, however, only one other work of hers is available. It’s a delight to begin with this novel. Ogawa makes us read specific math problems and consider specific math relationships and qualities, giving us a chance to engage in just the way the Housekeeper and Root do. For us, as for them, it turns out that Ogawa makes it surprisingly easy to fall in love with numbers and the people who love them.

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