Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

The Housekeeper and the Professor

by Yoko Ogawa
Published by Picador
copyright 2009 (first published 2003)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
If you are looking for a warm, touching novel that focuses on relationships and caring attitudes toward your fellow human beings, then look no further. This is all of that and more.
If you are unfamiliar with the storyline, here is the description from the front book flap:
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.
I was first attracted to this book when I read a short review in the May/June 2009 edition of Bookmarks Magazine. The critical summary says it all:

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)

Such descriptors as “deceptively elegant” – “delicate novel” – and “warmth and affection” are accurate when discussing this short, poetic, novel.
I had a connection with the novel before I started reading it when I discovered that the translator, Stephen Snyder, teaches Japanese literature at Middlebury College – the same institution where I am taking courses in English literature through the Bread Loaf school of English. It is such a small world!
While I do not think I can add anything to the well-written review in Booksmarks, I will instead choose to share a few passages from the book. The problem is that I marked so many eloquent paragraphs, that I don’t know how to select ones that would adequately represent the author’s beautiful writing style.
As I thumb through the book I realize that I could quote pages 61-63 in their entirety and I would never tire of reading them. The subject matter is prime numbers — can you believe it — and yet the passion that the Professor has for these numbers, the love that the Housekeeper and her son have for the Professor as he discusses the numbers, is so poetic that I really don’t realize that I am in the midst of a math class. Like any good teacher, the Professor knows that his passion for the subject must be genuine – which it is:

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)

But a good teacher must also make the subject matter applicable to his students – give them a reason to learn the material. Which, in this case, the Professor relates the subject of prime numbers to the game of baseball, the young boy’s favorite sport:
“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)
Amazing, isn’t it? How this author can take such a mundane, seemingly boring dialog, and turn it into a beautiful lesson of sharing and love. This very simple conversation had a profound impact on all their lives. Later, when the housekeeper is working for another client, she discovers that prime numbers are all around her. And every time she sees a number that she believes might be prime, she is reminded of the sweet, kind, intelligent Professor:
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)
The Housekeeper was profoundly impacted by the Professor’s passion and respect for numbers, and I am sure that every reader of this delightful little book will be equally transformed.


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