Contemporary Literature · Translations

The Housekeeper and the Professor

I’ve had this book on my shelf for years. A not insignificant number of years. And I don’t know why, but every time I was looking for a new book to read, I’d pass it over. Maybe because it’s just so small and I didn’t notice it? Maybe because, despite everything good I’d heard about it, I also knew a primary theme was math and I’ve never been so much of a math/numbers person. Regardless, I really have been meaning to read it and just haven’t. So shout out here to the “bonus prompts” from this year’s Reading Women Challenge. I have only loosely been trying to meet these 2021 prompts – I was feeling a more low-key reading expectations year – but it is nice to have it on the backburner if I’m ever looking not sure where to go next or looking to branch out into something totally different. “Read a book by Yōko Ogawa” was one of those bonus prompts and it turns out that was the push I needed to finally pick this one up.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yōko Ogawa

“Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.”

Somewhere in Japan, a housekeeper is hired from an agency to care for a elderly man. He was, still is, a brilliant math professor, but a traumatic injury years ago has left him with only 80 minutes of short-term memory. Although an unlikely pairing, the housekeeper and professor find a stasis that works for them both. And soon, the housekeeper’s 10-year-old son too has created a unique bond with the professor. Although the professor must meet them anew every day, his long term memory is still full of the beauty of complex mathematical equations and theorems and philosophies, and through this medium (along with a shared love of baseball) the trio create a deeply meaningful relationship.

Despite the short length of the book, and the objectivity of math in a general sense I found myself surprisingly emotionally invested in these characters. Even more so becasue the major bonding points, math and baseball, are two topics that I legitimately could not be less interested in. And yet this novel of connections was profoundly compelling – no plot to speak of, but truly touching character interaction. I am, on that note, glad this was a shorter read, as I don’t think the repetitive nature of the interactions and story could have supported a longer piece, but as it was Ogawa paced the growth, as it were, really well and I found the story starting to wrap up right as I was ready for it to. 

Relatedly, the detail was sparse and quirky – just enough detail to keep the reader aware and invested but not a single extra or gratuitous word. (Interestingly, this style seems to be common among the Japanese authors I’ve read, as Convenience Store Woman and Before the Coffee Gets Cold were very similar.) It was a particularly apt style in this case, as it mirrored the austerity of the numbers the story revolved around, and yet allowed just enough space for the human aspects to sneak in. In short, Ogawa added a lovely, unpretentious artistic beauty and life philosophy to the math in these pages. Specifically, I loved the pairing of the narrator as a slow math learner and a professor who loves teaching and cannot remember the recent past. It’s the perfect combo of being able to re-ask questions without embarrassment or annoyance from either party. And the way the interactions with the professor during his childhood affected the housekeeper’s son’s life trajectory was so sweet. In fact, I found tears springing into my eyes as I read the last few pages. An unexpected but not unwanted reaction to the goodness in these pages.

There were a few points where mysteries of the professor’s past were brought up and then never re-addressed or answered, which is realistic in context, but unsatisfying as a reader. And really I wasn’t sure that sort of “left hanging” feeling was really necessary for the novel to be successful? Perhaps it was just a “me” thing though.

What a profound illustration of the effect two (or three, in this case) lives in passing can have on each other. This slice of life was so small, in the grand scheme of things, and yet, it was all the more recognizable and affecting for all that. Poignant and sincerely human. 

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