The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa #Japanliterature

housekeeperForget about class divisions or gender boundaries, generation gaps or religious beliefs; in my view of the world what really separates us is whether we are numbers people or words people. I’m firmly in the latter camp. Give me a piece of text to analyse, interpret and possibly improve and I am in my element. Confront me with a bunch of numbers whether in table or graph or columns and my brain shrivels.

It was always so. At school I was the one in class who handed a question along the lines of “if a bath fills at x number of gallons per minute and empties at x gallons per minute, how long before the bath will be full?, would answer “a damm sight quicker if you left the plug in the hole.”

I do admire people who can see  a set of numbers and instantly detect patterns and connections. I can get there after a fashion – you have to if you don’t want to look entirely stupid in a business meeting – but it takes a lot of blood and sweat.

What the hell you might then think am I doing reading a book about a maths professor? And one that also contains numbers and real maths problems with concepts like prime numbers and logarithms? The first time they appeared in Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor I actually got out my pencil and tried to work out the problem (I would have loved to have been able to do it in my head just like the young boy whose mother gets to clean house for the maths guru but no such luck). So struck was I with another little puzzle about prime numbers and the fact I could even understand it, that I challenged my 17-year-old nephew who is a maths whizz kid to solve it. He didn’t. I didn’t push my luck though with the next batch of questions which looked much harder. I know my limits. Instead I just enjoyed the words which flowed around the numbers and just accepted that there are people in the world who might get even more out of this book if they understood both the numbers and the words.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is set in modern day Japan and features a Professor who was a brilliant mathematician until he was injured in a road accident. Now confined to a dingy two-room apartment his brain can retain only 80 minutes worth of memory. His suit jacket is covered with reminder notes he scribbles to himself to make up for his incomplete memory. He can still solve maths problems and in fact spends much of his day tackling competitions in specialist journals. But ask him to remember the name of his cleaner or even who this woman is who turns up at his door, and he is lost.

It’s as if he has a single, 80-minute videotape inside his head and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.

Over the years he’s gone through a lot of housekeepers. They find him too strange to stick around particularly when seemingly innocuous questions like “what is your birthday’ or ‘what is your shoe size?’ are transformed into lessons about number theory. The narrator of this novella is housekeeper number 10 (we never learn her name). At first she too finds him strange but  comes to respect him and to like him through witnessing his passion for maths and his kindness towards her son, a boy he nicknames Root because the shape of his head reminds him of the mathematical square root symbol. Slowly the three form a connection as the Professor instills his knowledge and his enthusiasm for number patterns with mother and child. Inevitably we learn that this knowledge provides the foundation for the boy’s future career.

He’s a brilliant tutor – the kind I wish I’d had in my school days. Explaining prime numbers he draws an analogy with a hunt through inhospitable countryside

 When you get to much bigger numbers – a million or 10 million – you’re venturing into a wasteland where the primes are terribly far apart […] that’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it – only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search … until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water …

Just as steadily the book began to take a hold on me too with its skilful mixture of  understated atmosphere and its attention to the minutea of life.  There are plenty of feel-good moments  when mother and son scour the city for a momento of the Professor’s beloved baseball player so they can mark the old man’s birthday. Occasionally the narrative stretches the boundaries of plausibility – at one point the housekeeper gets to grips with Fermat’s Last Theorem with the aid of a few pages in a library book.

Is this knowledge an illusion? The novella certainly has a dreamlike, almost mythical quality to it with its idea of a wise old man leading a younger mind to enlightenment. Even so most of us can appreciate that when knowledge is acquired, when we discover that what had so far seemed complex and unattainable, is now revealed. Perhaps for us, as for the housekeeper  “the world suddenly changed” at that moment. I’ve not given up hope that one day I’ll understand logarithms et al but I rather suspect it will take me a lot longer than the few hours it took the housekeeper.



Author: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Published: original title Hakase  no Aishita Suushiki 2003 by Shinchosa Co Ltd

Translated: from Japanese by Stephen Snyder  for Vintage Books 2010

Length: 180 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 17, 2016, in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. 45 Comments.

  1. Given my background this sounds like a must read for me. I also enjoy understated tones. Thank you for reviewing it for us!

  2. I’ve never read anything by Ogawa but this sounds really interesting. I’ll have to try it. Or is there something else by this author I should read first?

  3. I’m a bit like you so I must admit I took a step back when you first mentioned there being maths problems in it but if you can read it and skip over the maths I’ll put it on the TBR. I think there’s another Ogawa on there anyway so it’d be a good thing. Love your answer to the bath question. The question ‘why are we doing this?’ often came to my mind during lessons; I guess numbers people wonder the same when we look deeply into literary themes. Great review!

    • My 18 year old nephew is a maths whizz kid but when confronted by questions in English literature he applied the same direct approach that he would to a maths question.Which meant his answers were always short and to the point – no explanations at all. His sister on the other hand was fine at maths but excelled at literature and never knew where to stop with her answers

  4. I enjoyed a lot this book. I wrote a bit about it in 20112, at the time, my reviews were more notes than anything else though:

  5. I haven’t read much Japanese lit…Chinese is more my thing. I love the caustic satire that seems to be a feature of Chinese writing…

  6. Was this made into a film? It certainly sounds like film material

  7. One of those quietly elegant and understated books that pushed all my literary buttons. And I’m with you in the maths v. words camp – more than a little ashamed of my ignorance of science given how important it is in our world.

  8. I like the sound of this…

  9. I read and reviewed this book about five years ago and had forgotten about it. Your review brought me back. I remember the philosophy at the end of each mathematical solution in the book – one in particular I noted down to keep: ”Lots of mathematical discoveries have practical applications, no matter how esoteric they may seem…But those things aren’t the goal of mathematics. The only goal is to discover the truth.”

  10. Well, I preferred letters to numbers which is why I liked (sic) algebra.:-) The appeal of mathematics for me was that it was outside of human interractions; I found it pleasant to escape from the human world.

    It seems to be a rule in fictionalised accounts of scientists and mathematicians that they have to be very strange and that their knowledge of their subject is innate not learnt. This book sounds like it has the usual stereotype but it sounds like it might be ok.

    • That was exact my reaction to numbers too Jonathan. I liked algebra, and I found maths light relief from my heavy reading humanities classes. Not that I was a maths whizz, I hasten to add.

      This is on my TBR Karen. My Japanese reading has fallen badly by the wayside.

      • I was the opposite in that I found reading novels relaxing after studying maths and physics. I found they complemented each other. I think this schism between humanities and science is a big problem in our society, in the west anyway. And it’s one that’s allowed to grow.

        • Yes, I agree, and I’m ashamed that I’ve probably not helped reduce it in my time. I’ve read a wonderful memoir by a surgeon who uses poetry when teaching medicine, arguing that doctors – surgeons in his case – need to understand humans as well as be good technically and that poetry is a great way to learn about humanity.

        • I always feel inadequate when confronted by science info. And this is coming from someone who works with scientists and has to get them to explain their work so I can promote the benefits of the resulting material to our customers. They’re really patient with my inane questions….

        • Love it Karen! I must say I feel pretty inadequate when faced by it too.

        • Good point Jonathan. Our education system encourages the divide too because often schools force children to make decisions which courses to take based on scheduling considerations.

    • Algebra had logic to it whereas arithmetic seemed totally random to me…..

  11. I adored this book, it’s my favourite Ogawa. So beautiful and quietly powerful.

  12. I love numbers as well as words – well, someone has to buck the trend – so this book sounds really appealing. I’ve not read any Ogawa novels, clearly I’ll have to do something about that!

  13. I’m words not numbers too and I have the same issue with science – I just accept its clever and wonderful and don’t worry about actually understanding it!

    • I think I missed out on some fundamentals in school (like the periodic table) and from then there was no way back. hence why in quiz nights etc I score so low on science questions

  14. This is the Ogawa I most want to read next. it sounds a little different to some of her others – quieter and more contemplative in a way. Lovely review.

  15. I love the cover of this edition; it’s a book that I’ve picked up many times, but I’ve yet to read it. This design is more elegant (IMO) than the American version which I see more frequently on library shelves. Regardless of the cover, however, it’s one that I am looking forward to reading someday. Thanks for the nudge in its direction!

  16. This sounds like a wonderful book! Putting it on my TBR 🙂

  17. I thought this was such a wonderful and understated book

  18. Like you, I am a words person. However, I would love to understand numbers more, and the tutor’s analogy of a hunt through wasteland in search of prime numbers was wonderful. For such a person, losing his ability to remember sounds so sad….but at least he can still do his numbers.

    Thanks for sharing….

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