There’s a lack of memory here

Underdeveloped characters in a tale of mathematics and friendship

The Housekeeper and the Professor follows a young single mother in the employ of the Akebono Housing Agency her son and their relationship with an odd old man who’s a retired mathematics professor. The title implies a triteness that the plot itself does not belie and is barely saved by a selection of curiosities and simple wonders. The small cast of characters are nameless lending an allegorical mask to the book and bring these characters and their interactions closer to the infallible nameless numbers that are the Professor’s sole occupation.

Written from the point of view of the Housekeeper Stephen Snyder’s translation unveils Ogawa’s delicate economic prose inflected periodically with mathematical curiosities and numbers that often speak more than the words themselves. Some readers may find these numerical diversions dry as they tend to appear frequently and in lengthy expositions. Others may find them welcome decorations for a rather tired story; indeed these diversions often resemble numerical poems and may be the most engaging element of the book.

After a tragic automobile accident the Professor’s memory is reduced to 80 minutes. The Housekeeper enters his life 17 years after this accident and is immediately overwhelmed by his curious behaviour. The first thing the Professor asks everyday is her shoe size date of birth or phone number. He can’t remember who she is and these strange questions — the answers to which prompt a mathematical meandering on the nature of the numbers supplied — are his only way of bridging the gap between the face before him and the vacancy in his memory. He applies these tactics to all aspects of his life and from these oddities the Housekeeper learns of perfect numbers the mysterious relations between primes Fermat’s last theorem and many other bones from the curiosity cabinet of mathematics.

The beauty of numbers overwhelm the Professor and this proves infectious. The Housekeeper finds herself increasingly fascinated with this structured diaphanous world dedicated to unveiling the truths lying just beneath reality. Her reality is an ancient clock where the struggles of motherhood and making ends meet cycle monotonously so she is easily drawn towards this sphere of symbols where the practical is secondary and the truth is paramount. Eventually circumstances allow her 10-year-old son to join them at the Professor’s house after school and the three develop a friendship despite the Professor’s failing memory.

Ogawa’s characters are neither unique nor richly developed the details of their lives reduced to microhistory only briefly revealed. In fact all of the characters feel a lot like numbers — basic structures that are accessible to many but whose inner workings are clouded. The Professor is an archetypal idiot savant staring intently into fixed points in space capable of effortlessly uncovering connections between numbers through serpentine paths but unable to withstand a haircut or apply a bandage. His suit is covered in notes to remind him to partake in the most basic necessities what his new Housekeeper and her son look like and even that his memory only lasts for 80 minutes. These characters are by no means shallow they are merely partially submerged in the narrative waters which naturally leaves them a little dry.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is short and simple though its sweetness may vary. The latter half digresses into what seems like an endless refrain of baseball statistics — a cultural obsession that not everyone may relate to. Still this brief tale of how a struggling uneducated single mother breaches the arcane sanctuary of numbers with a forgetful old man as her guide will hold some measure of appeal to those who have at least once thought of numbers as beautiful.