The Housekeeper + The Professor

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.

16 thoughts on “The Housekeeper + The Professor

  1. While in France on one of my photographic journeys many moons ago, I met an engineer who had left the former Yugoslavia at the start of the revolution. I enjoyed several fascinating conversations with him. During one of our explorations of spirituality, he said (with a passion usually witnessed in the more artistic types), “I know god exists because of mathematics.” All these years later, that statement sticks with me…and puts this book on my ‘must read’ list.


  2. Sounds interesting… what an experience, especially for those who love a person with this condition, I can see how it would require quite an adjustment, patience, and opening of a mind.


  3. I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out. Will definitely put it on my list for next year – I think Ogawa will be a great addition to the my women writer’s project. Who is the translator by the way?


  4. I like the idea of falling into meditations while enjoying a book. New author for me, and something I wouldn’t have picked up without reading your review. (Thanks kindly for your words on my own efforts, appreciated. Wishing you a happy new year).


  5. I loved the book and have also posted on it. Our two posts are very different, yet not contradictory. You have conveyed the power of the professor’s understanding of numbers, while I was most impressed by the humane understanding the housekeeper and her son brought to the disabled professor. The combination is quite magical.


  6. Pingback: Revenge – Eleven Dark Tales | Word by Word

    • Excellent, I discovered Yoko Ogawa through her short stories and when this novella was translated into English I was intrigued to read it and really enjoyed it.

      Since then I have read and reviewed her latest collection translated into English called Revenge, also a brilliant read and which I read like a novel, not so common for me to do so with a short story collection. I hope you enjoy the book.


  7. Time to revist your archive! I found this book ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor”
    I haven’t read many Asian it is time I start looking to the land of the Rising Sun!
    Buying more Kindle books these days….easy to take on the train or read while I wait for the bridges while biking into town. In the summer I have to wait often while boats glide through our canals!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s