The Housekeeper and the Professor

Remember the movie, “50 First Dates”? Drew Barrymore’s character had a memory that rebooted after each day as the result of a car accident. In Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor, a mathematics professor suffers a similar fate. He can remember everything before the accident, but now his memory restarts every 80 minutes.

His sister-in-law contracts a housekeeper to come each day to clean and cook. Despite the professor’s memory problem, a friendship develops between them. The housekeeper’s young son connects with the professor through their mutual love of baseball, and the story becomes a lesson in family and relationships.

Ogawa cleverly invents situations to reveal the professor’s vulnerability and dependence – an expedition to the barber, his first baseball game – poignant and funny. As the housekeeper’s care extends beyond her job, her persistence and patience in being “new” to the professor every 80 minutes is not the slapstick of Hollywood movies, but as carefully worded as a mathematical word problem.

The one constant in the story is the professor’s love of math. The professor is constantly working a mathematical proof or teaching the housekeeper and her son about numbers. The professor’s enthusiasm for math is catching and soon the housekeeper and her son are looking forward to solving the math problems the professor poses. The professor’s encouragement is like no math teacher you have ever had.

‘It’s important to use your intuition. You swoop down on the numbers, like a kingfisher catching the glint of sunlight on the fish’s fin.’

Ogawa includes actual mathematical problems – which you can solve or skip. As the solution of each math problem is revealed, a philosophical note follows.

”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.”

The slim book is translated from Japanese, and, at times, the language is stilted and slow; nevertheless, the cultural references to patience and respect for elders create beautiful imagery that would not have been the same otherwise. Through eleven chapters, Ogawa offers a story that is elegant and discrete.

The professor finds peace in numbers. Where do you find peace?

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