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[508] The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa

” I remembered something the Professor had told me, something a mathematician with a difficult name once said: ‘Math has proven the existence of God, but it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.’ The Professor’s body had been consumed by the devil of mathematics. ” (Ch.6, p.100)

She (the characters in this novel are nameless) is an astute single mother. When she answers the bulletin for a job at the agency, she is informed that her prospective employer has already rid of nine housekeepers. Although the job itself is not complicated, and she is used to absurd demands in her previous employs, nothing in her experience has prepared her for working for the professor. A brilliant mathematician, the professor’s memory stopped in 1975, when a car accident robbed him of his ability to remember any new memories for more than eighty minutes.

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort. (Ch.1, p.7)

One can imagine the tough position the housekeeper is in: to the Professor, whose memory lasted only 80 minutes, she is always a new housekeeper he is meeting for the first time, and so every morning he is appropriately shy and reserved. But once she gets the hang of his routine (and temperament) and adapts to the rhythm of the work, a lasting friendship ensues. The Professor dotes on the housekeeper’s 10-year-old boy, whom he nicknames “Root” because the flat top of his head reminds the mathematician of the square-root sign.

Even when he was at a critical point with a math problem, he still seemed to have unlimited time for Root. He was always delighted when Root asked a question, no matter what the subject; and he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult . . . the Professor also showed concern for Root’s physical well-being and watched over him with care. (Ch.7, p.129)

The bond between the Professor, the housekeeper, and her son grows strong and defies the conventions that define a family. Here Ogawa truly shines by showing how families are composed, and how it doesn’t matter whom it’s made of. Japanese literature is abound with characters that are either social outcasts or loners. Ogawa creates a heart-warming story out of the unusual connection of them. The friendship survives even the run-in with the over-protective, cynical sister-in-law who suspects of the housekeeper’s ulterior motive. At once uplifting and poignant, the novel asks whether over immediate experiences are more important than our memories, since memories inevitably fade.

180 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

7 Responses

  1. I bought this book at my Borders when it was going out of business. So glad to hear it’s as good as it sounded from reading the cover blurb.

    • I love this book—unique, simple, and lovely. The technical aspect of mathematics is incorporated into the simple but poignant lives of the professor and the housekeeper very seamlessly.

  2. I loved this, too, for all the reasons you state.

  3. […] [508] The Housekeeper and the Professor – Yoko Ogawa […]

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