A 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.