The Professor was once a brilliant mathematician, but an accident in 1975 left his short-term memory damaged. While he is able to clearly remember events prior to the accident, his memories since then are limited to the past 80 minutes. The Housekeeper is the tenth housekeeper the Professor’s sister-in-law has hired to care for him. She comes to work for him in 1992, and soon he’s insisting she bring along her ten year old son, whom he nicknames Root because of the square root shape of his head.
This is a very quiet book, so elegant and beautifully written. I’ve seen movies before about this sort of memory loss (Momento, 50 First Dates, etc), but I’ve never seen the subject handled with this much care and precision. The Professor keeps his life afloat the best he can by writing messages to himself and clipping them all over his clothes. In the most prominent area: “My memory lasts only eighty minutes.”
Ogawa makes us see, through the eyes of this housekeeper, how difficult life is for the Professor. All he has left in the world is math, which he resorts to whenever he is nervous or uncomfortable. He opens every day by asking the Housekeeper not who she is, but for her shoe size or her birth weight or her telephone number. He finds relationships between seemingly random numbers, and is always teaching the Housekeeper and Root about math. Or baseball. Both the Professor and Root share a love for baseball, although Root avoids mentioning that the Professor’s favorite player was transferred to a new team after the accident and later retired altogether. Learning such things upsets the Professor – it reminds him how much time he’s lost. Though he knows his memory only lasts 80 minutes, he has no idea how many years has passed since that was true.
I liked math in school, so it was fun to take the little problems the Professor presented to Root and figure them out before reading the solutions. When it got to the more complicated ideas, I just read along and didn’t try to understand so much. You don’t need to have a love of math to love this book, but the Professor does take math and turn it into something beautiful and poetic. Even if you don’t understand, you can see the beauty in it. Ogawa also seems to have done a lot of research on the subject. I’m not a mathematician, and maybe a real mathematician would feel differently, but I thought this book treated the subject with respect. You don’t see that very often when math and mathematicians are displayed in fiction.
One of the things I loved about this book was that the characters were nameless. Other than Root’s nickname, none of them had names. They were just the Professor, the Housekeeper, the Widow (the Professor’s sister in law), and Root. Their names didn’t matter. They could have been any people in any time in any country. Their story, just like math, is universal, and that’s exactly how this was written. It was gorgeous.
The Housekeeper and the Professor is translated from the Japanese. Normally I have a rough time with translations because a lot of the original written elegance is lost, but not so in this book. The translator, Stephen Snyder, does a marvelous job of maintaining the poetic feel that I’m sure was intended in the original. I had no complaints at all about that. Being a translation didn’t detract from the original.
My favorite lines came from early in the book, from the Professor:
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.
This quote helped me to understand how difficult this life was for the Professor. Here was a man who had gone on uncharted expeditions and solved mathematical equations that had never been solved before. Now, because of his short memory window, he could only do 80 minutes of work at a time. He spent his days solving problems for contests in math journals, somehow adjusting for his memory, winning prizes more often than not. It was a great example of his willpower and adaptability, to be able to solve those problems, and yet, to him, this is no accomplishment – the solutions were already known by someone else, and he no longer remembered them the next day anyway. The contests were simply a way of filling his time. The numbers comforted him in his loss.