The Housekeeper and The Professor by Yoko Ogawa is a beautiful, deceptively simple book that made me remember why I love reading. I tend to read in fits and starts nowadays, but this book had a flow and a smoothness to it, that took me away from daily life for just a few hours and was completely immersive.
The book features a brilliant mathematics professor who has lost his long-term memory following a car accident in 1975. He can only form new memories for 80 minutes before his memory is lost again and he finds solace and the ability to cope through his love of baseball and mathematics. He pins reminder notes about his life on his suit and he greets his housekeeper anew each day unaware of the relationship that has built up slowly between them and her son Root – nicknamed because this shape of his head resembles the sign for a square root.
Using the housekeeper as a narrator, Ogawa unfolds a gentle, elegant story about loss, relationships, memory and the magic of mathematics.
By conventional standards, nothing much happens. The main characters, with the exception of Root, are never named. The housekeeper brings her son to work each day and a tentative friendship builds between the three, even though they will ultimately remain strangers to the Professor. He goes for a haircut. They take him to a baseball game and also to the dentist. There is an issue with his over protective sister-in-law which is resolved. The Professor wins a maths competition and grows older.
Nothing seems to happen and yet everything does.
The book is a tale of delicate understatement, which feels light as the cherry blossoms on the tree outside the Professors window, or as esoteric as the complex mathematics problems he enthuses over. The theory of numbers and their relationships to one another echoes quietly the growing relationship between the housekeeper and the professor and as she becomes more interested in the mathematics he loves so dearly – that one thing that grounds him and that he can never forget – so too does she become closer to this old man. The book explores the strange equations that occur to link people together, that create families.
The nameless characters suggest they are part of a myth, a larger signifier of an eternal truth
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.
That eternal truth, of needing to belong and to be understood is the core exploration of this slight, yet forceful book. Just as the Professor needs his mathematics and his baseball to be the rock he leans on to get him through the moments when his condition is too much, so too do Root and the Housekeeper need to know that they are part of something more despite their difficult life.
I needed the sense that this invisible world was somehow propping up the visible one, that this one, true line, extended infinitely, without width or area, confidently piercing through the shadows. Somehow, this line would help me find peace.
The story however, is not all theory and abstraction. While the Professor is firmly ensconced in the world of the mind, the Housekeeper is firmly placed within the physical – caring for his needs by cleaning, nursing and clothing him. The wonderful depictions of food preparation ground the novel, hold on to its kite like properties and stop it from sailing away.
I looked at the food I had just finished preparing and then at my hands. Sautéed pork garnished with lemon, a salad, and a soft yellow omelette. I studied the dishes one by one. They were all perfectly ordinary, but they looked delicious – satisfying food at the end of a long day. I looked at my palms again, filled suddenly with an absurd sense of satisfaction, as though I had just solved Fermat’s Last Theorem
Through the Professor, Ogawa shows us the magical within the ordinary – how we must appreciate the simple things because that is where the truth of life lies. There are a few hints that life is not as simple as a solvable equation however, what was the exact relationship between the Professor and his sister-in-law who looks after him? Where is Root’s father? Ogawa is confident enough to leave these questions with the reader and not let them disturb the calm, soothing waters of this lovely book.
The centrality of mathematics to the story may put some readers off, but Ogawa’s prose is both delicate and solid, whether describing a baseball game, a salad or Euler’s theory, the narrative voice (ably translated by Stephen Snyder) remains focused and measured throughout. There is a beautiful physicality to some of the descriptive passages that creates places as well as emotion
The curtains billowed in the breeze, letting the rain pour in on our bare feet. It was cool and refreshing, just as the Professor had said. The sun had vanished and the only light in the garden was the faint glow from the lamp above the kitchen sink. Small birds flitted among the dropping, tangled branches of the trees, and then the rain obscured everything. The smell of fresh garden soil filled the air as the thunder drew closer.
Certainly if you were to look at the Professor’s condition a little closer, there could be some issues with plausibility. Would his ‘reset’ every 80 minutes not cause greater emotional distress? But minor quibbles aside, this is a beautiful, sustained and enchanting story about the need to belong and the joy of living in the present.
20 Books of Summer: 5/20
Number Read: 76
Number Remaining: 670