* RK Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor

Ron KaplanContributor IApril 20, 2010

by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (2003; Picador Translation 2009)

I can’t even remember where I heard of this title but I’m glad I did.

Ogawa tells a touching story about a Japanese housekeeper, her 10-year-old son, and her professional charge, a former mathematics professor with an unusual disability, which was the result of a serious car accident some years before. He can’t form new memories; he can only keep them in his mind for 80 minutes.

Needless to say, this can be a challenge. The unnamed housekeeper (in fact, we do not know the names of any of the characters; the boy is called by a nickname bestowed upon him by the professor: Root) is the latest in a line of sent by her agency. None of her predecessors lasted very long.

She patiently deals with reminding the professor who she is, what they have been doing, and other bits of information, but the tie that binds is baseball. Both Root and the grandfatherly professor are quite taken with the sport, albeit for different reasons. The boy loves the action, the old man the beauty of the numbers. There are several passages about Hanshin Tigers. The professor’s long-ago memories center around his favorite player, a pitcher who had since left the team. The mother and son do all they can to pretend the professor’s hero is still with the team by hinding whatever information would link him to another ball club.

There’s little sense of melodrama in the author’s handling of the professor’s malady, only a gentle cooperation and understanding for the housekeeper and her son, who come to look on him as not just a job, but familial mission.

I’m no math whiz, but even I found myself enthralled by the explanations about number theory and the importance and philosophy of such concepts as “zero.” Those similarly numerically-challenged shouldn’t let that stand in the way of picking up this sweet nugget.

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