To the Professor, mathematics is more than just a profession: it is a quest for the truths that govern the universe. The Professor talks of discoveries in mathematics like an event where one peeks into God’s notebook. Up until reading The Housekeeper and The Professor, a Japanese work of fiction by Yoko Ogawa, I had never thought about the beauty of mathematics, how numbers can link together in interesting ways. While I cannot say I learned much about maths, I have a newfound appreciation for the work that goes into understanding numbers and how they relate to each other.
The Professor is a clever mathematician but he is no longer employed by a university. He was involved in a car crash wherein he lost some brain function. After the crash, the Professor’s memory was shortened to eighty minutes. After eighty minutes, something that had happened would leave the mind of the Professor. The housekeeper could set her time to when changes would happen, so she knew what to expect from the Professor. You would assume that such a short memory would prevent one from doing academic work but the Professor did not let his injury get in the way of his attempts to peek into God’s notebook.
Before the housekeeper who is a main character in this book, the Professor had several other housekeepers, none of whom were able to meet his needs. This does not sound unreasonable because the Professor would forget who the housekeeper was. Every day it was like someone new was arriving. But the Professor had a system to help him remember the important things in his life: he would attach pieces of paper to his suit. The most important note said that his memory lasted only eighty minutes; other notes spoke about mathematics and, later, the housekeeper and her soon, nicknamed Root.
The Housekeeper and The Professor is a tale of an unlikely friendship. Although the sister-in-law of the Professor suspects the housekeeper has ulterior motives at one point in the book, it is clear the housekeeper wants to stay with the professor because she sees his talent. The Professor keeps solving problems for the Journal of Mathematics, which reward money for the person who submits the best proof (solution). He does not care about the money: he cares about solving problems. When he has solved one problem, he moves onto the next.
While the Professor does not like to be disturbed while thinking, he makes an exception for Root, the housekeeper’s son. Root got his nickname because his head is flat, like a square root sign. Like anything to do with mathematics, the Professor has a lot of respect for the square root sign, speaking in the book of how it is used in mathematics. Root is a young boy who likes baseball. Through baseball and mathematics, Root and the Professor reconnect. Like Root’s mother, the housekeeper, Root knew how to work around the Professor’s eighty minute memory, being cautious not to cause him any distress.
Throughout the book, the Professor talks of mathematics, from amicable numbers to primes. He takes pleasure in teaching the housekeeper some mathematics, usually based on connections he finds between numbers relevant to the housekeeper. The Professor would often ask questions like when is your birthday to look for a connection in the numbers. Numbers are a retreat for the Professor: somewhere he can go to be comfortable and relax.
Set mainly in the Professor’s house – the outside world is a bit too stimulating – there is a clear bond formed between the housekeeper and the Professor. Each day, the housekeeper shows up, tends to the house, and sometimes gets involved in the Professor’s maths-driven questions when he talks about numbers. She even went to the library one day to research a formula the Professor had written out without any explanation.
This book is a light read about friendship. Although the Professor cannot remember much about what goes on, his drawing of the housekeeper’s face which he pinned onto his suit lets him quickly recognise the housekeeper. He knows, from the note about his memory, that he is unable to remember much. Inevitably, the Professor, the housekeeper, and Root run into trouble. But they are always able to overcome challenges and they stick with each other.
You do not need to have a good understanding of mathematics to appreciate this book. While some of the terms used are mathematical, they are used in the appropriate context, in discussion between the characters. I did not feel overwhelmed at any point by the numbers. Instead, I found myself intrigued by the day-to-day life of the housekeeper and her son. I was also interested in the Professor and how he can keep going and solve advanced problems even with his memory issue. If you’re looking for a good fiction book, The Housekeeper and The Professor is definitely worth a read.