Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Housekeeper & The Professor

The Housekeeper & The Professor - Yoko Ogawa

This is an odd little book. A housekeeper is sent by her agency to work with an ageing mathematics professor who has had an unusually  large number of housekeepers already, represented by the nine blue stars on his chart. When she finds out why this is she wonders how long she will last. "How exactly does a man live with only eighty minutes of memory? I had cared for ailing clients on more than one occasion in the past, but none of that experience would be useful here. I could just picture a tenth blue star on the  Professor's card."

The Professor was a professor of maths and still spends his time solving maths problems, often winning prizes from "the Journal of Mathematics". Maths is a safe place for him, just as it can be a safe place for anyone. The numbers always add up the same way. "Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realised that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort."

He manages to achieve some kind of orientation by sticking notes to his clothes, the most important of which tells him that he only has eighty minutes of memory. "Every conceivable surface - the collar, cuffs, pockets, hems, belt loops, and buttonholes - was covered with notes, and the binder clips gathered the fabric of his clothing in awkward bunches. The notes were simply scraps of torn paper, some yellowing or crumbling."

The Housekeeper begins to feel the attraction of numbers. Their reliability, their rightness. She tries to understand where The Professor goes when he is solving problems. It seems a lot less troubling than her own life, struggling to make ends meet and bringing up a child on her own. When after The Professor has solved a problem and she is able to clean the room in which he works, she feels this in the room's atmosphere: "the room was filled by a kind of stillness. Not simply an absence of noise, but an accumulation of layers of silence, untouched by fallen hair or mold, silence that the Professor left behind as he wandered through the numbers, silence like a clear lake hidden in the depths of the forest."

The Professor is aways ready to share information about particular numbers and at times this begins to feel like one of those books that try to teach you maths in a way that tries to steer clear of the dryness of textbooks, sort of like The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. At other times I expected that the maths would accumulate into an overarching metaphor but in the end the story remains modest, told almost like a true story who's only significance is that it is true.

She starts to try to learn from the Professor, helped by the fact that he forgets that he has taught her something and therefore being prepared to go over the same territory until she feels she has fully understood it.

When the Professor finds out that she has a ten year old son who is often home alone he insists that she bring him over. From the off it is clear that he has a special place for children and he gives the boy lots of attention. A shared interest in baseball brings them closer together but also brings The Professor closer to a sudden awareness of how many years he has forgotten. He still thinks of the baseball team they support as having the same players they had before the accident which stopped him making new memories. It is against the rules of the agency to bring your children to work and the Professor's sister in law, who hired the Housekeeper and lives in a house beside him, may not be happy.

And as the Housekeeper and her son become attached to the Professor they are also aware that an hour and twenty minutes after they walk out of the Professor's house they are forgotten. They are nothing more than a doodle on one of the torn pieces of paper that festoon the Professor's suit.

This is a quiet novel which is affecting and manages to skirt being too sentimental, a danger given the subject matter. It didn't blow me away but it whispered insistently and I have a feeling that it will leave a trace not easily erased.


  1. This is a nice book, but nothing more than that - so many people have said that this is unrepresentative of Ogawa's work. It was a good choice for the English-speaking market though as it seems to have made her a famous writer in the Anglosphere.

  2. This sounds like fascinating premise. I am reminded of the film Memento which had a much more sensationalistic plot. One reason this sounds appealing to me is that it seems like it is a much more realistic and down to earth story.

    1. It is very down to earth and the premise is used more to highlight how hard life is for the Housekeeper than anything else. and also our need to make connections.

  3. I very much liked your last sentence and I fully agree with it!