I recently read this charming book – the Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yōko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder. Reading the blurb I was intrigued. A gentle and beautiful book, set in Japan in the 1990’s, that slowly pulls you in.
It’s about the lives of a brilliant professor of Mathematics with an unusual problem: since a traumatic head injury he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. He has a Housekeeper who assists him in the everyday tasks of life and she has a ten-year-old son.
So what is the book about?
The Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced each morning and it always starts with some clever math riddle about her birthday or her shoe size. The Professor covers his suit (he has two) in notes to remember new information and teaches his Housekeeper and her ten-year-old son the beauty of all these different numbers: prime, amicable, perfect, twin and many more. Except for the Housekeeper’s son, who the Professor calls Root – because the top of his head is flat like a square root sign – none of the characters have names. Another character in the book is the Professor’s Sister-in-Law, also the Widow, who hires the Housekeeper and also manages the his affairs.
There are beautiful moments where the Professor explains certain mathematical theorems in such a way that the Housekeeper goes to explore it in a nearby library. Also while she cooks his meals, the Professor sometimes watches because it calms him. He finds a certain rhythm in it, some kind of formula. The Housekeeper soon realises that whenever the Professor is unsure of what to do or say he talks about numbers. Numbers are his comfort zone.
The Professor delights in the son. A beautiful relationship between the three appear, some kind of would-be-family where there was nothing before. One of respect and kindness and love. The three share many things, they not only talk about mathematics but also about baseball and the Professor’s favourite baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers and his favourite player, legendary strikeout pitcher Yutaka Enatsu. The Professor is also very humble and has enormous respect for matters about which he has no knowledge.
Although this is fiction, there is so much to learn, so much knowledge and depth in this elegantly written book. How important it is to respect each other as individuals and the lasting impact we have on each other’s lives. And yes, even if your knowledge about mathematics and baseball is limited, you will still enjoy the book. It will help however.
And the movie:
There is also a film made from the book – The Professor’s Beloved Equation – directed by Takashi Koizumi. I haven’t seen it, but read that unlike the original work, which is told from the perspective of the narrator, the film is shown from the perspective of Root, now a 29-year-old man. He recalls his memories of the professor to a group of new pupils. Maybe I will try and find it…
I leave you with this quote from the book. In my copy it is on page 34.
Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.