He is a brilliant math professor with a peculiar problem – ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.She is an astute Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him.And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities – like the Housekeeper’s shoe size – and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together even as his memory slips away.
The success of Ogawa’s “deceptively elegant novel” (New York Times Book Review) was a surprise, considering its lack of action, romance, melodrama, and even character names (none of which are ever mentioned). However, there is enough suspense and sly humor to keep readers enchanted by this slow-paced, delicate novel – even those with bad memories of high school math class. Ogawa makes a crucial choice not to minimize the impact of the professor’s brain injuries; she portrays his limitations and daily difficulties realistically, but also with warmth and affection. Critics praised Stephen Snyder’s seamless translation and compared Ogawa’s graceful prose to that of Japanese writers Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami. This touching story of a devoted friendship may captivate Western readers as well. (page 35)
But the truth was, we were almost never bored when he spoke of mathematics. Though he often returned to the topic of prime numbers – the proof that there were an infinite number of them, or a code that had been devised based on primes, or the most enormous known examples, or twin primes, or the Mersenne primes – the slightest change in the shape of his argument could make you see something you had never understood before. Even a difference in the weather or in his tone of voice seemed to cast these numbers in a different light (page 62)
“Let’s try finding the prime numbers up to 100,” the Professor said one day when Root had finished his homework. He took his pencil and began making a list…….……”So, what do you see?” He tended to begin with this sort of general question.“They’re scattered all over the place.” Root usually answered first. “And 2 is the only one that’s even.” For some reason, he always noticed the odd man out.“You’re right. Two is the only even prime. It’s the leadoff batter for the infinite team of prime numbers after it.”“That must be awfully lonely,” said Root.“Don’t worry,” said the Professor. “If it gets lonely, it has lots of company with the other even numbers.”“But some of them come in pairs, like 17 and 19, and 41 and 43,” I said, not wanting to be shown up by Root.“A very astute observation,” said the Professor. “Those are known as ‘twin primes.'” (pages 62 and 63)
I thought of the Professor whenever I saw a prime number – which, as it turned out, was almost everywhere I looked: price tags at the supermarket, house numbers above doors, on bus schedules or the expiration date on a package of ham, Root’s score on a test. On the face of it, these numbers faithfully played their official roles, but in secret they were primes and I knew that was what gave them their true meaning.……One day while I was cleaning in the kitchen in the tax consultant’s house, I found a serial number engraved on the back of the refrigerator door: 2311. It looked intriguing, so I took out my notepad, moved aside the detergent and rags, and set to work…..Once I proved that 2,311 was prime, I put the notepad back in my pocket and went back to my cleaning, though now with a new affection for this refrigerator, which had a prime serial number. It suddenly seemed so noble, divisible by only one and itself.” (pages 112-113)