The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

The Housekeeper and the ProfessorA brilliant mathematics professor is in a car accident in 1978 and experiences an unusual type of brain damage: he can remember everything up to the accident, but forever after his memory lasts only 80 minutes, like a tape continually recording over itself. His sister-in-law looks after him and employs a housekeeper to see to his daily needs. The job must be difficult in some way because there is high turnover until the housekeeper of The Housekeeper and the Professor is assigned there. The professor’s sister-in-law explains his condition to her, and tells her the one condition of her employment. She must never communicate with the sister-in-law-again.

This is a bit of an ominous start and would lead any reader to expect insupportable working conditions to be braved by the intrepid and resourceful housekeeper, but Yoko Ogawa is more subtle than this. It turns out there is never any reason to speak to the sister-in-law at all. The professor’s needs are easily met and the housekeeper even has the time and energy to hide carrots in his meals (he does not like them). He himself is somewhat difficult to interact with, but the housekeeper does not seem to mind so much when he isn’t sociable. She doesn’t even seem to mind that each morning when she arrives he has no idea who she is, though it must be disconcerting. She knows him better every day and yet remains to him a stranger.

And as the housekeeper comes to know him, she is able to anticipate the professor’s likes and dislikes and get along with him better and better. He begins to teach her about math, the subject that always comes up when his memory is failing him. Mathematics is the ultimate in abstraction but acts as his rock, the only solid place he can return to when his 80 minutes are up.

The abstraction and loftiness of the professor’s mathematics also contrast nicely with the housekeeper’s firm placement within the physical world. She is the one who deals with all the professor’s physical needs: cooking, cleaning, nursing, clothing. She is no-nonsense and maternal.

She also has a 10-year-old son, whom the professor befriends—as much as is possible for him. He nicknames the boy Root, on account of the flat top of his head (resembling the square root symbol), and that is the closest thing anyone in the novel gets to a name. Root comes to the professor’s house after school and they work on math homework together and listen to baseball games on the radio. An affecting relationship develops between the old man and little boy, and Root’s sensitivity makes him an ideal companion for the professor’s fragility.

A few questions linger after reading, however. It’s not clear exactly what all the math means. The professor teaches the housekeeper and Root some basic number theory; they talk about prime numbers and Fermat’s last theorem. There are many general things to be gotten from this. For one, time dominates the professor’s life; he is a slave to time at the same time as he never actually experiences it himself. And mathematics is likewise timeless. But as far as specific formulae and number theoretic properties—what do primes mean to these people?—it’s not clear that they represent anything equally specific. At the same time all the math is correct and advanced enough to be interesting (rather than so simplistic as to seem foolish).

Further, the housekeeper is all too willing to leave under wraps the mystery between the professor and his sister-in-law. Were they together, or was she always with his brother? The housekeeper finds tantalizing clues to the past while cleaning the house, but never pursues them.

Over and above anything else, Ogawa’s prose (or the translation) is really fine. Every sentence is precise and solid and delicate, a style not uncommon in contemporary Japanese fiction and one I really have a taste for. She describes baseball and frying pork and amicable numbers in the same soft, even tone, the result being a smoothness to the whole novel that gives it a very contemplative feel. Very appropriate when the subject matter is as intimate as memory, loss, aging, and loneliness.

12 comments to The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

  • Sorry for this bit of stupidity… I would like to clarify something about the professor’s memory: that odd thing about remembering things only up to 80 minutes applies only to memories after the accident, right? I mean, he would still remember events before the accident 80 minutes after he thought about them?

  • That’s correct. He basically lives in the world of before the accident—thinks retired baseball players are still pitching, that sort of thing. But if the housekeeper goes out shopping and comes back 90 minutes later, he won’t know who she is.

    I actually think the illness is a bit of a weak point, although who knows if it is realistic. But the fact that he always knows there is something wrong with his memory seems problematic. How does he remember that, since nothing was wrong before the accident? He actually keeps little notes pinned to his suit to remember things, and one of them says, “My memory lasts only 80 minutes.” I guess that could remind him every morning when he puts on his clothes. It’s like going through a terminal diagnosis every day—or every 80 minutes.

  • Sounds interesting…but maybe a bit too contrived. This idea has been done before, although at the moment I can’t remember where but I think it would be very hard to do really, really well. Too many chances for inconsistencies ..

  • I’ve read several Ogawa short stories and enjoyed every one, I like the moodiness of her work (if that’s an apt description). This is the first I’ve heard of this novel and I suspect I would really enjoy it, so am adding it to the list.

    If the prof does remember his life before the accident, would he remember if he was in a relationship with the sister-in-law? Or is it hinted that they were in a relationship after the accident?

  • Trying not to spoil too much, it is hinted that they were together, or maybe not together but wanted to be together, before the accident. His sister-in-law has since been widowed, which is how she ends up as his caretaker, and there’s definitely a bit of mystery around their current relationship and where the brother fit into the picture.

    I think “moodiness” is apt. I found the whole thing sort of quietly contemplative—very atmospheric. I’ve been wanting to pick up The Diving Pool, and after this she’s definitely someone I want to read more from.

  • Caite, yes, clearly various memory loss tropes have been done to death. That actually turned me off a little. Since that part’s not new, it ultimately comes down to the characters that are instantiated here, the author’s voice, the themes she chose to explore, etc., and I found all those generally to my liking. But not earth-shattering!

  • rantsandreads

    I’m reading this book right now, and I really like it so far. I agree with your analysis completely, it does feel as if Ogawa stopped short in a few areas of the story.

  • I finished reading the Japanese edition of this book and found it very entertaining, somewhat reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” I read Ron Charles’s review of the book in The Washington Post last Sunday which piqued my interest. I found out that the bestselling book (sold over 2 million) became a successful movie. I haven’t seen the movie yet.
    I do agree with some of the comments above: (1) that the book should have a postscript explaining some of the mathematical formula in greater detail and, (2) that the relationship of the professor with his sister in law should be elaborated further.

  • I read/reviewed this today and actually thought the ambiguity of the sister-in-law and the Professor’s relationship added to my understanding of his character without steering into the melodramatic. And even though I HATE math, I found myself mesmerized by the idea of numbers significance to our lives.

    Thanks for your thoughts to add to my own :-)

  • Haven’t read the book,but am intrigued by the idea of the lost of memory and math,i’am not particularly good with numbers but i’ve always been intrigued by numbers such as 137,which describes the fine-
    structure constant of the atom and also happens to be the sum of the Hebrew letters of the word ” Kabbalah”.I will read this book!

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