During the long flight from London to Tokyo, I was grateful to have a novel that was fairly simply written but emotionally engaging. ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ has an easily digestible style of writing and structure. However, it has a meaning which subtly builds over the course of the story. Narrated from the point of view of a single mother and professional cleaner, the Housekeeper tells her story of working for a man she only refers to as the Professor. She and her son (who the Professor dubs Root because his head is shaped like the square root symbol) develop a close bond with the Professor. He is an ingenious mathematician but suffers from an illness where he loses all recent memory every eighty minutes. This developed after he received a head injury in a car accident at the age of forty seven. As such he wears a suit every day which is covered in notes to remind him about his condition and who the Housekeeper and her son are. He gives this mother and son an appreciation for the beauty of mathematics. In turn, the Housekeeper develops a deeper engagement/relationship with other people and the world around her.
I really appreciate fiction which sensitively depicts working class life. The Housekeeper has worked diligently her whole life because she needs to make ends meet. She’s a single mother who gets no assistance from the boy’s father or her mother who rejected her. The fact that she doesn’t use her own name and lets herself only be referred to as the Housekeeper is a clue to what little importance she attributes to herself. Nevertheless, she takes pride in what she does and through engaging with mathematics finds a value in how she fits into the equation of the world. Where most people of humble origin might find connection with a higher existence through religion, she uses the guidance of the Professor to see how mathematics connects her with something greater: “I felt no fear, certain in the knowledge that the Professor would guide me toward eternal, unchangeable truths.”
The order and structure to the world which mathematics gives is a lifeline for the Professor whose immediate world is so insubstantial because he can’t remember and hold onto it. The personal truth of his daily existence must be maddeningly tragic as he can form no connection with what he’s experienced day to day since he was forty seven. Rather than taking faith in anything transitory he places it in what he refers to as the eternal as he says to the Housekeeper here: “Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression – in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.” There is a power found in numerical equations which is fixed in a way our own fleeting existence is not. The Professor’s condition highlights how everyone’s experience of reality is subjective, but there is an underlying structure which is comfortingly constant.
What really struck me was the meaningful way Ogawa presents how we relate to memories. The Professor is kept by his Sister-in-law who wants virtually nothing to do with him. She lives in another part of the property and hires an endless stream of housekeepers to see to the professor’s daily needs. The Housekeeper finds it difficult to emotionally deal with the fact that the close bond she feels for the Professor can’t be reciprocated because she must be reintroduced to him every eighty minutes. But conversely the Sister-in-law is suspended in the Professor’s immediate memory. She states: “You see, my brother-in-law can never remember you, but he can never forget me.” Both women are complexly trapped in their relationship with the Professor because of their place or lack of place in his memories.
This is a very sophisticated and beautifully executed story which made me care about mathematical equations more than I ever thought I could. I didn’t find it completely satisfying as there were some strands of the narrative and mysteries about the Professor’s behaviour which weren’t resolved. But perhaps it is better that my questions about his back story and relationship with the Sister-in-law go unanswered so I can imaginatively fill it in. It’s a novel of subtle power and a touching tribute to kinds of beauty which aren't immediately apparent.