The Housekeeper and the Professor is a beautiful and poignant story of maths and numbers, of baseball, but most of all of a deep bond of friendship and affection formed between three unlikely but in their own ways lonely souls—a mathematics professor who retains old memories and has a good brain but is unable to retain anything new for more than eighty minutes, a young housekeeper sent by her agency to work at his home, and her ten-year-old son, ‘Root’. None of the characters are named in the book.
Narrated by the housekeeper, we are told of how she is assigned by her agency, the Akebono Housekeeping Agency, to work for a difficult client—difficult for 9 housekeepers have been sent before her and left (I promise, this doesn’t turn into Jane Eyre). After being interviewed by his elegant but stern sister-in-law who lives next door, the housekeeper arrives to find a threadbare cottage
The inside of the cottage was as cold and uninviting as the outside. … It was small, and the wretched condition of the place was striking. The furniture was cheap, the wallpaper was discoloured, and the floor in the hall creaked miserably. The doorbell wasn’t the only thing that didn’t work: just about everything in the house was broken or on its last legs. The little window in the bathroom was cracked, the knob on the kitchen door was falling off, and the radio that sat on top of the dish cupboard made no sound when I tried to turn it on.
The Professor himself, who had been an expert in number theory, is in some ways, just as his house is.
He was sixty-four, but he looked older and somewhat haggard as though he did not eat properly. He was barely more than five feet tall, and his back was so badly hunched that he seemed even shorter. … his wispy white hair fell in all directions, half concealing his plump Buddha-like ears. His voice was feeble and his movements were slow.
He always dresses in one of three suits he owns, and
… the most curious thing about the Professor’s appearance was the fact that his suit was covered with innumerable scraps of notepaper, each one attached to him by a tiny binder clip. Every conceivable surface … was covered with notes … but it soon became clear that he was compensating for his lack of memory by writing down the things he absolutely had to remember and pinning them where he couldn’t lose them …
At their first meeting, the Professor begins the conversation with the housekeeper by enquiring about her shoe size, and telephone number which he immediately interprets in terms of factorials and primes.
… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.
The Professor spends much of his time engaged in solving maths puzzles, coming up with proofs which he sends to magazines that posed them winning small prize amounts with which he is little concerned. But it seems he takes to the housekeeper, for she notices
… a new note on the cuff of his jacket. ‘The new housekeeper’, it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters and above them was the sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child—short hair, round cheeks and a mole next to the mouth—but I knew instantly it was a portrait of me.
For the most part, the housekeeper goes about her work (including trying to get the Professor to eat carrots which he seems to cleverly discard from any dish she makes) while the Professor is engaged in his mathematical puzzles. But from time to time, they interact, the Professor soon passing on his love and enthusiasm for numbers onto the Housekeeper. Then one day, he finds out about her son, who must wait alone at home every day till she returns from work. He is distressed by this and insists the little boy come to his house after school. The Professor, who likes children, takes to him immediately, and nicknames him ‘Root’ for his head is flat like a square-root symbol, ‘a generous symbol’ that ‘gives shelter to all the numbers’. As the story proceeds, we start to learn of their pasts, and the relationship between the three begins to grow, subtly, over maths and numbers, and also another common interest discovered—baseball!
This is such a wonderful, deeply felt story and I loved every moment of it. We have three very different people, a professor with a memory problem and deep love for mathematics, a young housekeeper who is a single mother, and a little boy, the housekeeper’s son who seem to have little in common, and yet develop a deep, affectionate bond. What I loved was how all this happens slowly, delicately with no sudden or jarring developments and no great drama (except one bump in the road), just simply and gently. Both the Professor who has suffered from an accident and is aware of his memory problems, and the housekeeper who became a single mother at eighteen when the boy she was involved with simply left her and her mother threw her out, have had difficult pasts and carry burdens, work in a way being all they have (and for the housekeeper, Root too). It is lovely to see the three find a friend in each other—the bond is far from conventional understandings of friendship, yet all the more deep, and beautiful. It brings a new meaning and simple joy to each of these lives.
The book is also a lot about mathematics and numbers, since for the Professor, it is something he is intensely passionate about—the centre of his life, so to speak. His enthusiasm is infectious, soon rubbing off on the housekeeper who begins to see every number she encounters in a new light. And really it rubs off on us too. There is plenty of talk of numbers and maths concepts in the book, but all are put across simply, so the reader has no trouble understanding it. As someone who does find maths fun, at least popular maths, I certainly enjoyed these parts, but what I really loved about it was the poetry that comes into it—maths for the Professor is not only about its sense and logic or the fact that it helps make sense of the world, but also about the beauty that is inherent in it. The interesting properties of numbers are wonderous and magical as he shows, but what he strives for is also aesthetics:
The truly correct proof is one that strikes a harmonious balance between strength and flexibility. There are plenty of proofs that are technically correct but are messy and inelegant or counterintuitive. But its not something you can put into words—explaining why a formula is beautiful is like trying to explain why the stars are beautiful.
This was my first time reading a book by Yoko Ogawa, and I absolutely loved it. The translator, Stephen Snyder, has done a wonderful job giving us a book that doesn’t feel like a translation at all, capturing the simplicity and beauty of the story perfectly.
The only element in the book that I didn’t get along with that well (and this is my fault not the book’s) was the baseball. I know absolutely nothing about the game, so when it was talked about or a match described, I could read only mechanically without actually following what was taking place.
This was the first of my 10 Books of Summer list, and what a great start it’s turned out to be!
(Copy reviewed: paperback, Random House/Vintage, 2010, 180 pp; own purchase).