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The Housekeeper and the Professor - Yōko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder

“My memory lasts only eighty minutes” 

The Housekeeper And The Professor is a sweet little book about the unique bond shared among a maths professor, his housekeeper and the housekeeper’s son.

The Professor is an old man who experiences severe short-term memory loss following a car accident that took place in 1975, in the sense that even though he remembers everything before the accident, he has a memory span of 80 minutes for anything post the incident, including the fact that his memory only lasts that long! The Housekeeper is a single mom with no knowledge of maths whatsoever and a recurring need to introduce herself to the Professor – you guessed it – every 80 minutes. Her very young son is a Japanese baseball fanatic, whose top head shape resembles the square root sign due to his flat haircut.

As the Professor invites the Housekeeper and Root (obvious nickname of the young boy given by the Professor himself) to the universe of arithmetics, they magically click together, as they develop a connection between themselves and number theory. (I wouldn’t go as far as saying “mathematics”). 

And this process re-launhes every 80 minutes. Sweet!

From a literary point of view, I loved the author’s depiction of the affection shared among the three characters, especially the bond between the Professor and Root. It was written with sensitivity, grace and a genuine innocence and I believed it. Yōko Ogawa seems to have chosen and placed every word in this novel with tenderness and affection and the story flows smoothly once the relationship is established. This is a character driven book and the author does an amazing job in making the three players relatable and real.

However, from a narrative point of view, the kick-off of this relationship read a little abrupt and simplistic to me. In specific, I couldn’t understand how a completely mathematically illiterate person (the Housekeeper in this case) showed such an interest in mathematics IMMEDIATELY. Because that was the sole basis of their relationship at first and boy did it kick-off at the drop of a hat. I am an Engineer and also one of those nerds who see magic in maths, so I totally believe that caring about mathematics makes sense. But.not.that.fast. Come on. Unless you were born in the 1770s and your name is Carl Friedrich Gauss, you are VERYunlikely to care within the first 10 minutes that someone talks to you about perfect and natural numbers. Yes, you’d understand it; it’s an easy concept, but to care?

On the other hand, the way maths is used to describe the beauty of maths itself is spectacular! In her very short book, Yōko Ogawa has managed to talk about the essense of maths very briefly, efficiently and in the most romantic way possible.

“The mathematical order is beautiful precisely because it has no effect on the real world”. 

“Math has proven the existence of God because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.” – the famous paradox

“The truly correct proof is one that strikes a harmonious balance between strength and flexibility. There are plenty of proofs that are technically correct but are messy and inelegant or counterintuitive. But it's not something you can put into words—explaining why a formula is beautiful is like trying to explain why the stars are beautiful”. 

From a philosophical point of view, this is indeed the core of maths and the lovely thing about the above chosen passages is that they apply to memory and emotion too, which are also central to the novel.

Plot-wise, there are several questions left unanswered, especially concerning the Professor’s past, but personally, I don’t particularly mind. The Housekeeper and the Professor is a light, sensitive and moving read on the interlinkage between human nature and science and even if the story feels like a naive illusion, I’m very happy to have tasted it.