Housekeeper and the Professor
Yoko Ogawa, Translated by Stephen Sydner
Picador, 180 pages, $14
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
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
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.