Having recently discovered and read Yoko Ogawa’s
‘The Diving Pool’, I was further intrigued when I saw this novella displayed in my local bookshop and couldn’t resist another of her works with its beautiful cover and the promise of an alluring story about a woman who visits an eccentric mathematics professor each day to clean his home and cook his meals.
Reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ is a little like a meditation in mindfulness; although we might escape into the book, we are held in its present, for each day is a repeat of the previous and follows a pattern, such as we might too if our memory were constantly erased after eighty minutes, the habits we would continually follow, because we have been reduced to the very core of our nature, without the accumulation of memory from yesterday, last week or last year.
The Professor is a mathematics genius, whose memory ceased functioning after an accident some years before, so while he retains his mathematical genius and his long term memory before the accident, he has lost his short term memory. It lasts only eighty minutes and so he has devised crude methods to remember things, such as pinning small pieces of paper to his suit to remind him of important facts, otherwise he starts every day anew.
The housekeeper arrives each morning and introduces herself as if they have never met. Slowly, she and her ten year old son, whom the Professor refers to as Root – a reference to the square root sign and his hair, are drawn into the Professor’s reduced world where numbers reign supreme and the two visitors begin to understand the magic and meaning behind what they had always thought of as ordinary numbers.
Whether you hated mathematics at school or loved it like I did, you will find yourself attracted to the arithmetic secrets the Professor unveils, which stir more than a mild curiosity in the significance of certain numbers and the challenge of elegant equations, as both the housekeeper and her son discover to their own delight.
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.
In essence, it is a meditation on the simplicity of life and an introduction to the complexity and significance of numbers; it is about letting go and accepting things the way they are and deriving small pleasures from the mundane.
Yoko Ogawa’s writing and storytelling flows like a sparkling river, it draws you in and carries you along; there are few surprises just gradual awakenings. There is a vulnerability to each of the main characters that we pick up on, which forewarns us, characters we become sympathetic to, whom I was sad to leave behind but will be revisiting again for sure.