The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

After a brief interview with his sister-in-law, the housekeeper starts a new assignment, working for a professor whom she has not met but who has had problems retaining housekeepers in the past. When she arrives for her first day, he immediately asks her what her shoe size is. Thus begins this quirky and—reluctant as I am to use the word—charming story.

Since a car accident seventeen years previously, the professor can only retain his short term memory for eighty minutes, although all of his memories prior to the accident are intact. Thus, he can perform complicated math operations in his head, but must be reintroduced to the housekeeper every eighty minutes, A delicate relationship between them begins to grow, in the smallest of increments.

The details of the story reflect the thought Ogawa has given to what it might mean to live constantly in the present. The professor’s clothing is decorated with little notes held on by binder clips, some new while others are crumpled and the clips rusty. The housekeeper introduces herself by pointing to the note about her, and one of the chores she takes on is while he is sleeping to renew the notes that have gotten too tattered.

The other thing that Ogawa does beautifully is to integrate the math into the story, so that it does not interrupt the flow. The professor understands the world through numbers, and finds associations between a number and the larger universe: perhaps the number in question happens to be the sum of all prime numbers between one and one hundred million or the number of home runs in Babe Ruth’s record. He falls back on equations when he finds people too difficult to understand. Intrigued by the mathematical terms the professor explains to her, the housekeeper begins to explore them on her own time, looking things up in the library, puzzling them out with pencil and paper. Thus, we are introduced to the math with her.

When the professor finds that she has a ten-year-old son who is home alone after school while she works, he insists that the boy come here where his mother is, even though it is against the agency’s rules. The two become friends. This part really touched me, that he showed the same affection for the boy every time they were reintroduced. It reminded me of Mimi, my friend when I was a child though she was elderly even then. Later, when I was grown and she was over 100 and not recognising anyone around her, I used to stay with her one night a week, feeding her and putting her to bed while her caregivers (her granddaughter and grandson-in-law) had a night out. Mimi had always been sweet to me and to everyone, gentle and patient and kind, but I admit I was surprised that she retained her sweetness even into dementia, when every moment was a new one for her, with no remembered social conventions to restrain her.

As a child, I never quite trusted adults, believing that the face they showed me was probably not their true face. But Mimi was the real deal. As is the professor. This book made me think about how we create relationships, how we can bear to trust each other, and how we stubbornly continue to do so against all obstacles and in spite of all common sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>